Public Links an avenue to Augusta

Updated: May 26, 2004, 10:55 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- She still hasn't graduated from the ninth grade, and Michelle Wie already is working on the Masters.

Then again, that was the plan all along.

The first golf tournament she watched on TV was Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters, about the time she was learning to play. Five years later, with braces on her teeth and baby fat in her 12-year-old cheeks, Wie stood behind the 18th green at Waialae County Club in Honolulu and shared her dream.

"I want to play in the Masters,'' she said, rocking from heel-to-toe as seventh-graders are prone to do.

This brought nervous laughter to her father, not wanting his little girl to sound irreverent. But she had done her homework, and Wie proceeded to count the ways she could get invited to Augusta National -- win the U.S. Amateur or the U.S. Amateur Public Links, both men's tournaments.

"Or win a major,'' she said, with just enough charm that no one was sure if she was kidding.

Turns out she wasn't.

"I remember the look on your face,'' Wie recalled Tuesday afternoon at Sea Island Golf Club, where she is practicing with the U.S. Curtis Cup team. "You were like, 'Uh-huh. I'll just write this down and forget it.'''

Augusta National is still only a vision, but Wie now has the blueprints.

When the USGA decided to give the 14-year-old from Hawaii an exemption to the U.S. Women's Open -- the only amateur to get a free pass to the biggest tournament in women's golf -- it allowed Wie her first crack at the Masters.

Without the exemption, she would have had to qualify for the Women's Open. Now, she can go to Manada Golf Club in Hershey, Pa., and try to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links.

It won't be easy.

A year ago, there were 87 players at Manada trying to earn two spots in the 156-man field that will gather at Rush Creek Golf Club in Minnesota in July for the Publinx. The top 64 qualify for match play, and then she would have to get through six matches to win the tournament and go to the Masters.

But it's a start.

"I really wanted to play in the Public Links this year, because I really want to play in the Masters,'' Wie said. "That's my dream. And I'm the kind of person where if I really want something, I just have to do it. If I accomplish that dream, golf is going to change. Because that will be the first woman to play in the Masters.

"Even though it's hard, and I'm going to have to practice really hard, I really want to achieve it.''

The odds of a 14-year-old girl winning the Publinx -- recent champions include Trevor Immelman and Tim Clark of South Africa -- are about as likely as a ninth-grade girl making the cut on the PGA Tour.

Some question why Wie got an exemption to the Women's Open in the first place. Those typically are reserved for women who have been playing the Women's Open since before Wie was born.

And the timing could not have been worse.

She is in Sea Island with seven other amateur stars, and this is the first year the USGA revoked Women's Open exemptions for Curtis Cup team members. Her roommate is Elizabeth Janangelo of Duke, who outplayed Wie at Pumpkin Ridge in the Women's Open last year but now will have to qualify.

Plus, Wie has won only one title of distinction -- the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, an event hardly anyone knew about until she won last year at Ocean Hammock in Florida to become the youngest winner of a USGA championship for adults.

What has she done to deserve this?

Plenty.

The youngest player to compete on the PGA Tour, she missed the cut at the Sony Open despite a 68 in the second round, the lowest score ever by a woman competing in a men's tournament. That left her at even-par 140, one shot from playing on the weekend.

Wie has played 10 times on the LPGA Tour the last two years and missed the cut only once. In three LPGA Tour events this year, she finished fourth in the Kraft Nabisco Championship -- a major -- and her worst finish is a tie for 19th in Atlanta. Had she been cashing checks, Wie would have earned enough money -- $131,130 -- to be 28th on the money list.

That's better than Laura Davies, Rachel Teske and Kelli Kuehne. Wie would have made more money per start than Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb. And because the top 35 are exempt to the Women's Open, USGA executive director David Fay saw it as a no-brainer.

"The Women's Open is not a sellout, but we expect results to be good,'' Fay said. "In the case of Wie, sure, we know she's a draw. But it was purely performance driven. She did this in three events. With the exception of Annika (Sorenstam), all the top players have competed in seven to nine tournaments.''

Wie offered no apologies for getting an exemption.

"I feel I did kind of deserve it,'' she said. "It's not like I missed every cut on the LPGA and then I got this exemption because I'm 14 years old. I did get in the top 40 on the money list.''

Told she would be 28th, defiance in her voice turned to girlish glee.

"Twenty-eighth? Really?'' she said. "How much money was I supposed to make? It was over $100,000 wasn't it? Do you know what I could have bought with that money? A red Ferrari. I could have driven that to school!''

What she really wants is to drive it down Magnolia Lane.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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