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Bill Dwyre

Wie tries normal, and it works for her

September 20, 2008|Bill Dwyre

Michelle Wie was 1,744 miles from golf's Valhalla on Friday, but she was happy and possibly on her way to something mystical of her own.

On a sweltering, sunny day in the quiet of the Coachella Valley, with the eyes of the golf world focused east on the men and the Ryder Cup in Louisville, Ky., Wie made it through the semifinals of qualifying for the LPGA Tour.

Playing at the Mission Hills Dinah Shore Course in Rancho Mirage, she shot a one-under-par 71, totaled an eight-under 280 for the four-day event and easily gained a spot among the top 30 for the tour's final qualifying event in Florida in December. Get through that and you have the right to play on the tour all of 2009.

This is news because it is so normal.

Little of what Wie has done as a teenage prodigy since she started playing major events six years ago at age 13 has been normal.

The LPGA qualifying process is the usual path. Annika Sorenstam took it. So did Natalie Gulbis, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Se Ri Pak. It is the way, the norm.

Wie turns 19 in three weeks and has said she hasn't been old enough for a qualifying event until now. Both Creamer and Pressel petitioned for shots before they turned 18, got them, and never looked back. So the age thing clearly isn't the whole story for Wie.

Much to the chagrin of the women pros, and the golf world in general, Wie has transcended the game. She is tall and tan and young and marketable. She has made millions in sponsorships from the likes of Nike, Omega and Sony. She has played more men's pro events than some of the men pros who want to and can't get in. In her eight PGA Tour events, she has missed the cut in all of them.

To get into those fields, she has used sponsor's exemptions, special invitations. It has not been what she has done, or how she has played, but who she has known, how well her looks sell tickets and whose product she will wear and hawk.

Her event summary reads: 63 pro events played as either a pro or amateur; 49 against women, 14 against men. Zero wins.

In many ways, Wie reflects our current shallow tendencies to worship celebrity at the expense of achievement. She is a website darling, a photo-shoot dream. Vince Lombardi was wrong. Winning isn't everything.

Wie is, in some ways, the Anna Kournikova of golf, except that Kournikova won several doubles titles.

The LPGA has grumbled as Wie has flitted in and out of its tour, never really becoming a dues-paying member and never seeming to care. She has fired caddies, dropped out of tournaments with various wrist injuries -- once while trailing by 22 strokes in the second round -- has been disqualified and lost large chunks of money for making an illegal penalty drop in one event and failing to sign her own scorecard in another.

She once uttered the famous quote that covers all this nicely: "I knew the rules wrong."

Her parents, dad B.J. and mom Bo, are also subjects of criticism. They are almost always with her, and have apparently been willing to trade endorsement money and appearance fees for a slower, less-enabling progression of normal teenage growth and tournament experience.

But now, with sponsor's exemptions drying up a bit, and opportunities decreasing with each non-victory, the road most traveled, the qualifying tournament, may now serve Wie best.

That made Friday a very good day. Wie could have blown up and shot her way out with an 86. She has been known to do such things.

But she stayed calm, scrambled beautifully with a short game that, on its own, makes her a world-class player, and shot a number that reflected her special talents. The swing and the ability have never been in question, only the head producing that swing and the people around her filling it.

This event could have been a career-killer, even as young as she is. Failing to get to the next step could have worked badly on her brain.

But this time, she started, finished and succeeded.

She displeased the press by refusing to talk until after Friday's final round, but displeasing the press has become a team sport these days, so that was predictable. And when she did speak, it was predictable too.

"I did what I had to do," she said, smiling.

As for her three-day media blackout, she said, "I just wanted to play. . . . I didn't want to deal with negative questions and distract myself."

Still, this was more about a huge young talent, finally starting on the correct career path after several years of trying to parachute in and steal the gold and silver.

A fully exempt, 19-year-old Michelle Wie, playing a regular schedule of LPGA events -- with only an occasional side trip to a men's event when somebody from Nike whispers in her ear -- would be a new story in golf.

Also, a nicer one.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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