- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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Even her loudest critics have to show some love today. You can debate the merits of Michelle Wie competing in a PGA Tour event and can argue whether she is deserving of a sponsor's exemption, but there is no doubting she can play, and that she put forth some performance at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
The 14-year-old Wie is back in the ninth grade, but with her head held high after shooting an even-par 140 and missing the cut at the Sony by a single stroke. Many believed she wouldn't break 80, but instead put up rounds of 72 and 68 and narrowly missed qualifying for the weekend.
"She got after it," said Craig Bowden, 35, a PGA Tour pro paired with Wie for two rounds. "And there was no novelty in her game. She's got game."
It was a score good enough to tie two major championship winners from last season, Jim Furyk and Ben Curtis. And it beat some pretty accomplished players, including John Cook, Steve Flesch and Scott Hoch, who was among the most outspoken about Wie's presence.
You can bet it will be an issue again.
How could any tournament director in the country not see what Wie did for the tournament? Face it, on the weekend of the NFL's conference championship games, how much attention would the Sony Open receive from the casual sports fan? Not much.
But Wie had the biggest crowds of the week, and had sportscasts around the country talking about golf in January. Executives at Sony were thrilled with the buzz, which is exactly what they wanted. And since they were shelling out $4.8 million in prize money, that is their right.
Since her impressive performance, seven PGA Tour events have extended her invitations, according to father B.J. Wie. He also said Michelle was still pondering the possibilities.
Often overlooked in the debate about women competing with men is the fact that sponsor exemptions are a way of life on the PGA Tour. Some tournaments have 12 of them, several unrestricted. In exchange for making millionaires out of some very gifted golfers, they can hand-pick a few players who otherwise wouldn't get into their event, often looking to jump-start ticket sales or create some added excitement.
Nobody complains about it except in instances such as these, when issues of gender and fairness come up. Those who cry foul argue that male professionals scratching to make a living are being denied for the sake of publicity.
Controversial or not, the invitations are pouring in for Wie. It is just too good of a story, too good of a marketing plus for it not to happen.
Nonetheless, Wie should decline those invitations for now (her father said she'd likely decline the Booz Allen spot). Not because there would be howling from men about the fairness of it all. But because playing in PGA Tour events isn't the right thing for her at this point in her career.
Wie has plenty of time to play with the men, and she would earn their respect even more by qualifying. Earn a spot on a Monday and nobody would have a problem with her being there. And that, too, would give her incredible experience -- competing in a high-pressure atmosphere.
And if you dissect her rounds at the Sony, you could find some flaws. As far as she hits the ball, Wie often wastes the advantage with inexact iron play, a problem that none other than Tiger Woods experienced when he was younger. She made two long birdie putts on Friday, and also holed some longer par putts, meaning that 68 could have been 74. She needs to hit more greens, and hit shots closer to the hole.
More than that, however, Wie needs to be in a position to win tournaments and feel the pressure of being expected to do so. For all her 300-yard drives, for all her acclaim at such a young age, she is not in possession of many trophies.
It was Woods who suggested that it might be better for her to dominate at various levels of golf before moving on to the next, as he did. Bowden concurred.
"I think she obviously needs to learn how to be at her normal level and then go to the next level," Bowden said.
A troubling sign: Wie has accepted a sponsor's invitation to the LPGA's Evian Masters in France this summer. The tournament is opposite the U.S. Girls' Junior Amateur, an event she has not won but one where she'd be a favorite.
Perhaps she believes she has already surpassed her teenage peers. Maybe she has.
"I'm impressed," Bowden said. "I don't even care that she's a girl. It impresses me that she is at that age and can play at that level. I personally couldn't find my a-- with both hands at 14. I can't imagine."
It isn't a stretch to imagine Wie playing against men in the future. And often.
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org