Now for the Tigress' turn

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The Independent Online

Actually, scrap that. Because it's not just at women's tournaments where we are obsessed with the question: "Where's Michelle?" It's at men's amateur competitions too, not to mention professional men's tour events. In fact, there are those who think that Michelle Wie is breaking down so many barriers right now that in a few years we will be saying: "Freemasons - right, where's Grandmaster Michelle?"

The effect really is that immense of the 15-year-old we are just bound to refer to as "The Royal Wie" when she makes her British Women's Open debut at Royal Birkdale this week. One predominant American columnist even went as far as to say last week that Wie will be "the most influential female athlete of all time" and there weren't too many scribes dipping their quills to doubt him.

Well, there wouldn't be, would there? Not in the week after she had come within three matches of gaining entry into next year's Masters until beaten in the quarter-finals by the eventual winner of the US Public Amateur Links Championships. Sure, it was ultimately a failure as the schoolgirl herself acknowledged, but even to transform such an outrageous piece of fantasy into a legitimate notion proved to many that Wie is the real thing and not some 6ft, graphite-bending novelty.

Not to say that there aren't many disbelievers, just as there is with every revolutionary. Barely a day goes by in golfing circles without someone casting reservations on whether or not this girl in a woman's body, who nevertheless returns to school next month, should be playing in this or that. Last week, for instance, it was the veteran LPGA Tour member Elaine Crosby who queried the Honolulu teenager's long-stated aim to play on the men's tour. "I don't see the point," Crosby said. "Even if she did play in the Masters it's hard to say if it helps women's golf."

Why Wie should be so hell-bent on helping the women's game and not purely her own, Crosby failed to mention, although all she was doing was repeating some oft-aired concerns. Annika Sorenstam has often hinted that Wie would be better off in her own age-group, or at least the amateur game, and tasting what it's like to win week-in week-out, while there have been bitter mutterings over the decision of first the USGA to extend an invitation to the US Women's Open and then the Ladies Golf Union to follow suit with their own to Merseyside.

For her part, Wie has maintained a dignity that belies her years and carried on doing her talking on the fairways. And boy, has she babbled on and on. In Colorado last month, she held the lead going into the final round of the US Women's Open, while at the John Deere Classic a fortnight ago she looked odds-on to become the first women in the modern era to make a male cut until she took a double-bogey with the line in sight. "It's only a matter of time before she makes cuts and plays in our majors," said Greg Norman.

Before that, however, she will still have to continue to confound the whisperers. This week at the Evian Masters they have once again centred around her father, BJ, whose often over-enthusiastic influence was credited with being responsible for the ninth caddie to leave his daughter in acrimonious circumstances. No matter, the Hawaiian professor simply picked up the bag himself to help Michelle recover from an opening 75 to compile rounds of 70, 68 and 68 for a share of second behind the American 19-year-old Paula Creamer, and he will resume the duties this week. Professor Wie has become used to controversy and, like Richard Williams in the tennis ranks before him, seems sometimes to be positively encouraging it.

What he will not be drawn on, however, is the funding of his only child's "amateur" career, apart from declaring that he pays all the expenses and that this year this could amount to $100,000. As Wie would have earned well over $500,000 in prize money alone this year in the seven events she is allowed to compete in on the LPGA Tour (times that by at least 20 if she was allowed sponsorships) then it's little wonder the rumours sound so incredulous, especially when you consider that the Tour would have to rip up the regulations that say only females over-18 can take up full membership if Wie was to turn professional.

With sponsors and television companies desperate for her name on the starting lists, what the authorities would do if she officially applied is anyone's guess, save to say it would just be another milestone in the revolution that Wie has already swung into motion. With Wie as the chief cheerleader there is a snow-balling fascination with youth in women's golf that is picking up such speed that Sorenstam's attempt this week to win her third major of the year is not eliciting the dry ice it perhaps should do.

Wie is still awaiting her first senior title in the professional ranks, while the equally remarkable Creamer was winning just her second yesterday. Meanwhile, Annika has 62 and Laura 36. It's not what you have but what you will have that counts.

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