Not according to plan

Originally Published: June 19, 2004
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

GRANTVILLE, Pa. -- The good news for David Bradshaw and Alex Knoll is that Michelle Wie lost a three-way playoff and finished as the third alternate in the U.S. Amateur Public Links qualifying tournament at Manada Golf Club.

If she had been the first alternate, the two young men who won the qualifier may have had to have someone else start their cars and taste their food.

That's how much it seemed everyone wanted Wie to advance to the men's Publinks and keep alive her dream of playing in the Masters next April at Augusta National. The bad news for Bradshaw and Knoll -- as well as the 81 other men in the qualifier here -- is that Wie was far from her A-game and finished only two strokes out of the top spot.

There were only two spots open for the 84 players at Manada -- about 20 of them were serious contenders -- and the rather remarkable Wie made a determined run but ran out of gas during the second round of the 36-hole endurance test, making only one birdie over her last 14 holes.

That Wie was far from her best and still shot two-under-par 142 -- Bradshaw and Knoll advanced with scores of 140 -- continued her run of impressive near misses. That she was unable to close the deal -- Wie was 2-under par for the day with 14 holes to play and had plenty of time to reach her target score of five under par -- provides ammunition for those who say she should be playing more junior tournaments and learning how to win.

But no matter where you stand on the issue of whether the Wie's are employing the best strategy for developing Michelle's game, you cannot help but to stand in awe of her talent. In fact, because of her 6-foot frame and 280-yard tee shots it is easy to forget that she is only 14 years old. But you are reminded of her age during moments like when she pulled her approach shot to her 13th green in the final round and raised the club above her head in anger then slumped into the trademark "why me" slouch familiar to any parent who has had a child in their early teens.

Wie was off with her drives -- hitting only 14 of 28 fairways -- but ultimately it was a cold putter in the final round that did her in. After an opening-round 71 -- three strokes behind the 68 Bradshaw posted -- Wie made a birdie on No. 10, her first hole of the second 18 -- but beginning on her fifth hole she made 10 pars and a bogey over the next 11 holes, missing five putts inside 15 feet. In fact, Wie hit 16 greens on the second round but needed 33 putts in shooting another 71.

"I made some good putts, I missed some bad putts," she said after her drive into the hazard on the second playoff hole left her as the third alternate, with Kevin Blue finishing as the first alternate and Sal Picone the second alternate. "I missed some fairways and I wasn't hitting my irons so great." Wie said. "But it was a good experience."

Wie has long stated -- if a 14-year-old can have a long history -- that her ultimate goal is to be the first female to play in the Masters. Traditionally, the Masters extends an invitation to the winner of the men's Public Links. Thus the reason Wie traveled to this public course near Hershey, Pa., to once again take on the men.

Her near-miss likely guarantees Wie will make at least one more try at getting to the Masters through the men's Public Links next year. A wise man might surmise Wie will play next year as an amateur and then turn pro at the ripe old age of 16. With her talent, financial backing -- she will sign a multimillion-dollar endorsement deals as soon as she leaves the amateur ranks -- and crowd appeal, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw would have no choice but to waive the 18-year-old age limit for Wie.

One of the interesting post-tournament developments at Manada was that Wie, while saying she felt she earned her special exemption into the U.S. Women's Open next month based on her play in LPGA events, mouthed words spoken by many veteran LPGA players who feel the exemption from having to qualify for the Open is not good for the development of her game. While Wie has been applauded for finishing in the top-10 in two LPGA major championships, except for the victory in the Women's Public Links last year she has had no experience actually winning. Qualifiers are all about that kind of pressure and Wie is well aware of that fact.

"It's been kind of a long time since I played in a qualifier," Wie said after Friday's competition. "It's different from a regular tournament. It's more stressful. I just feel like I have to be more consistent. I wasn't playing my top game, but I was still shooting under par."

But when she needed to make birdies over the closing 14-hole stretch they weren't there. There are no moral victories in qualifiers. You either advance or you don't.

"Qualifiers aren't very fun," Wie said. "It's two out of 84. Very stressful. You'd rather be exempt," she said with an embarrassed laugh. "I think qualifiers are good. They get you prepared and they make you shoot a certain number."

That's exactly what the LPGA players were saying when they expressed their opposition to her special exemption into the Women's Open. They weren't saying she shouldn't be in the tournament, they were merely saying she'd benefit more by playing her way in.

On Friday at Manada Golf Club, Wie almost played her way into the men's Public Links. She will almost certainly be a factor at this year's U.S. Women's Open. But it could very well be that she learned more at Manada by not qualifying than she will learn from her exemption into the Open.

"I hurts not to qualify," said one LPGA player with a lengthy USGA resume. "But it makes you want it more."

I have a feeling Wie walked away from Manada deeply disappointed, but wanting it more. And for anyone desiring to be a top-tier professional athlete, that is a good thing.

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.