Sunday, January 18, 2004

The Big Wiesy makes it look easy

By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press

HONOLULU - The consolation prize for 14-year-old Michelle Wie was bending over the back of a computer terminal to follow along as her father scrolled down the list of guys she beat at the Sony Open.

The ninth-grader really thought she was going to make the cut.

She was, like, totally bummed out when she learned late Friday afternoon that despite two birdies on the final three holes for a 2-under 68, she came up one shot short.

"Just one more shot and I would have made it," Wie said. "It's killing me."

Her two-day total of 140 was only enough to tie U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and British Open champion Ben Curtis. It was one shot better than John Cook and Scott Hoch, two better than Steve Flesch, three ahead of Adam Scott.

And while she didn't get her way at Waialae, it was a performance that was simply stunning.

"She's 14 years old and she beat a lot of guys," said Craig Bowden, 35, who has been a professional one year longer than Wie has been on earth. "She's got an incredible future ahead of her."

At times, Wie looks as if the future is now.

"The LPGA has got to be chomping at the bit," Tom Lehman said Saturday morning. "She's got star power. She holds her head high. She walks like Seve (Ballesteros) used to, when he was like, 'Watch this next shot. It's going to be the greatest you ever saw."'

Wie displayed a full range of shots during her two days at Waialae, starting with her drives that put her in the top two-thirds of the field in driving distance. Three of them were longer than 300 yards.

Between clubs on the par-3 fourth, where the pin was all the way back, she went with a knockdown 3-iron to control the flight and distance, and finished pin-high, 40-feet away. When the cut was in range and the pressure at its peak late in the second round, she hit crisp, punch shots to gain more control.

Her 68 was the lowest score by a female competing against the men.

Annika Sorenstam had rounds of 71-74 at the Colonial, when she missed the cut by four shots. Suzy Whaley, the Connecticut club pro who qualified for the Greater Hartford Open playing a shorter set of tees, went 75-78 and missed the cut by 13 shots.

Three other women played on international tours, and Se Ri Pak is the only one who made the cut. She closed with a 69-71 at the SBS Super Tournament on the Korean PGA Tour and tied for 10th.

Still, the most important number at the Sony Open was Wie's age - 14.

"It's an amazing story," Lehman said. "It's the story of the Wiiieeeek."

Lehman chuckled at his play on words. The former British Open champion is the one who nicknamed her the "Big Wiesy" two years ago during the Pro-Junior Challenge at the Sony Open, saying the swing reminded him of Ernie Els.

Two years later, Lehman is still shaking his head.

"I was talking to Jonathan Byrd last night and asked him what he was doing at 14," Lehman said. "He said, 'Snap hooking it and getting into trouble' - just like the rest of us. She has really matured. She is strong, poised and motivated. And she's obviously incredibly talented."

Where it leads is anyone's guess.

Wie returns to school Tuesday at Punahou School, where she is on the honor roll. Her next tournament is the Safeway International (March 18-21) outside Phoenix, which traditionally attracts one of the strongest fields on the LPGA Tour. A week later, she plays in the first LPGA major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

The Sony Open will give her invaluable experience and confidence.

"I think it helps me on the LPGA, because since I played on the PGA, I think the LPGA will be easy, too," she said. "The courses are going to be a little shorter, so I'm going to have more wedges."

A year ago, Wie played in the final group at the Kraft Nabisco with Sorenstam and Patricia Meunier-LeBouc, who won the tournament. Wie shot 76 in the final round and tied for ninth. But she had a 66 in the third round by turning Mission Hills into a pitch-and-putt with her awesome length.

Tiger Woods had a 66 in the third round of a major, the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. It was a round he later said proved to him he was ready to turn professional.

Wie isn't headed there that fast.

She still has 3 1/2 years of high school and plans to go to college. Her father met the president of Stanford over the holidays on Maui.

After that, she sees no reason why she can't play on both tours.

"I struggled and I fought," Wie said. "I made a couple of really good putts. I made two birdies out of the last three holes. I think I did pretty good.

"I think I can play out here one day."

Such a comment from someone so young would have sounded outrageous. After two days in the Sony Open, where a 14-year-old girl shot even par and tied for 80th, all bets are off.

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