Feminine fairways shorn of characters – so we need Wie
Twenty-year-old hopes to get up-and-down career back on track at British Open
Michelle Wie will arrive at Royal Birkdale tomorrow and embark on the same fact-finding mission this nostalgia junkie undertakes when-ever visiting a links. As she delves into all the history which has taken place between those famous dunes, it may not take too long to come across the story of the 15-year-old schoolgirl who finished third in her first British major.
Back in 2005, Wie was an extraordinary sight, the tall, willowy starlet who made seen-it-all pros such as Fred Couples reel in amazement as the ball soared past the 300-yard marker. Her podium placing that year was merely the latest confirmation of the phenomenon. Never mind dominating the big girls, very soon Wie would be competing with the big boys, too.
But now she returns to the Ricoh Women's British Open and even though she is an established, titled professional everybody with a passing interest in the game knows it has not worked out anything like scripted for the female Tiger Woods. And still her destiny speeds ever further into the sunset.
After a 2009 season in which the corner appeared to be turned, Wie's career crashes into yet another wall. Two weeks ago, she compounded a miserable campaign by shooting 82-76 for her worst finish in the US Open. So much for last year's maiden victory and a starring role in the Solheim Cup heralding a new chapter. Her salutary tale is written out most starkly in the majors. The teenager who recorded seven top-10s in her first 11 majors has given way to the 20-year-old without a top 10 in the majors in the last four years.
At least one thing remains constant in this torrid narrative. Wie is unfailingly positive when talking about the future, or indeed about her past. Her "Je ne regrette rien" rendition has become a staple favourite in the press conference halls and once again the bright side of life is whistling through her statements. "I wish I was doing better right now but I feel I'm getting better every week," she says. "It took me a while to recover from my wrist injury and restore my confidence. I'm proud of myself, even if I'm not playing my best. I'm out there giving it my all. Looking back with no regrets."
In fact, Wie can peer in the rear-view mirror with satisfaction. Certainly to the wet and windy week of half a decade before. "I remember it all so well," she says. "I had been over the year before to play in the Curtis Cup [at Formby] so had an idea of what to expect. But I was really excited. My coach, David [Leadbetter], is British so had lots of advice on the shots to hit on a links – the knock-down shots andbump-and-runs. I couldn't wait to get there."
The billing signified the anticipation was mutual. Two years before, as a 13-year-old at the LPGA Championship, she played herself into the final grouping on the final day of her first major and the year before she fired that outrageous 68 in her first male event; the Sony Open on the PGA Tour. Thus the Birkdale predictions were hyperbolic enough to tie a few pigtails in knots. "There was no nervousness," claims Wie. "When you are 15 everything is such an adventure and you don't go in with expectation. I just rushed round trying to take in as much of a new experience as possible."
She rushed to the outskirts of glory, never quite troubling the runaway winner, Jang Jeong, but stealing her spotlight anyway. At that moment, the women's game had never seemed so healthy. Annika Sorenstam was in her pomp and Wie was out of her romper suit. The sport was going prime-time.
But now the Ricoh returns to Southport with the feminine fairways more barren than ever. Meanwhile, Wie is inevitably depicted as the bank boss in the crash. How dare she continue her studies at Stanford University when her Tour requires her as its "face", how dare she donate anything but full-time energies into realising the potential? But as an adult whose childhood was obliterated by the demands of others, perhaps Wie has a right to another life.
"I love golf but I also love being able to escape and hang out with my friends who really don't care how I perform on the course," says Wie, who has two years left on a communications degree. "Everyone at Stanford is so good at what they do that I don't stand out at all and although it can be a challenge to juggle everything, I would not have it any other way."
It is with this attitude she will revisit Birkdale. First she will have to finish the Evian Masters in France and the last few days has seen her pull out of the pro-am with heat exhaustion, start with a highly promising 68, post a quintuple-bogey in a second-round 77 and recover respectability with a 70 yesterday. Vintage Wie. Maybe not the vintage golf believed to have corked in '05. But vintage nonetheless.
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