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Could Wie be 'Tigeresque' for the LPGA?
Early in her young career, Michelle Wie was viewed by many as the potential Tiger Woods of women's golf, but the odd twists and turns of her career over the past few years have taken some of the luster off that prediction. Many questioned her initial interest in competing against men and why she did not focus exclusively on the women's pro game. In December, when she entered the LPGA Q School and earned her card for this year, Wie resolved a lot of questions about her plans for the remainder of her career.
Wie is no Tiger on a golf course and never will be. She could, however, become as valuable to the LPGA - on a relative scale - as Tiger has been to the PGA Tour. She made her impact known this weekend in her very first event as an official card-carrying member of the LPGA. Tied for the lead after two rounds in the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in Hawaii, the 19-year-old Wie battled veteran Angela Stanford on Saturday before a record final-day crowd. Wie led by three strokes with just eight holes to play, and it appeared that her very first LPGA win was imminent. However, three straight birdies by Stanford on the back nine and a couple of poor drives by Wie turned the tide, and Stanford won by a comfortable three-stroke margin. The 31-year-old Texas native has been playing at the top of her game since midway through last season, and the win was the third in her last seven starts.
While technically a "rookie" on the tour, Wie has now competed in 49 LPGA tournaments. In 2002, she played her first LPGA event as a 12-year-old amateur. Dozens of entries as a sponsor's exemption followed. She contended in several of those events, but two wrist injuries over the past two seasons resulted in limited appearances. The last time she teed it up in an LPGA event was last July. Many had begun wondering if her game may had already peaked as a teenager and if she lost confidence.
Her 7-under-par performance in the SBS Open appears to have answered those two questions. It looks as though Wie will be a force to be reckoned with every time she tees it up this year. She's also generating more buzz and renewing fan interest in her much-chronicled still-young career.
Buzz is just what the LPGA sorely needs right now. The tour needs a new headline-grabbing American star to capture the interest of more American fans and sponsors. The tour has become increasingly international over the past several years, in player makeup and in event locations. The United States is still its economic base, however. When Wie and Stanford battled it out Saturday, it marked only the third time since the beginning of the 2008 season that two American players finished first and second in an LPGA event.
The LPGA, like the other pro golf tours, has taken some hard financial blows this season with the loss of events and sponsorships. The latest setback came just this month when the Ginn Open outside Orlando, carrying one of the biggest purses of the year, was unexpectedly pulled from the schedule. The sponsor of the event said its own economic realities made it impossible to host the tournament.
If Wie continues her strong play through the remainder of the season, she will generate more spectators at events, more TV viewers, and more media coverage of the women's game. She may not be the only rookie making headlines on the LPGA Tour this season. Two other rookies played themselves into contention this week. Highly-touted Stacy Lewis, the winner of the LPGA Q School tournament in December, and 18-year-old Vicky Hurst, the leading money winner on the Duramed Futures Tour in 2008, both finished in the top 20 at Turtle Bay. They were tied for fifth place going into the final round, but slipped a few slots down the leaderboard on Saturday.
Many observers of women's professional golf have been saying that this year's crop of rookies on the LPGA Tour may be one of the strongest in years. With Michelle Wie among them, the timing couldn't be better for the tour.
Dave Andrews is a Harvard-educated former television news reporter. He's also an avid golfer who has become a fan of the Duramed Futures Tour. His home course in Concord, N.H., is annually the site of one of the tour's events. The inspiration for Dave's 2007 novel, "Pops and Sunshine," came from meeting many of the young aspiring women golfers on that tour. Each of them has a passion, dedication and determination that he finds remarkable. His novel is a fictionalization of the dream that these young women share. To order Dave's book, visit http://popsandsunshine.com.