Michelle Wie is all of 16 years old. She’s a pro golfer, and she’s been trying for a year or so — since she was 15 — to qualify for a number of professional men’s tournaments. She just failed to qualify for the John Deere Classic, which makes her 0-5 in her bids for spots on men’s tournaments.
She also hasn’t qualified for any LPGA tournaments, something which her critics point to when they gripe that she doesn’t belong in pro golf, certainly not the men’s tour.
“She just said, ‘I’m going to withdraw,'” said Jeff Gove, one of Wie’s playing partners. “Which was good because she was holding us up again.”
People like Gove – and there are plenty – simply don’t get it. Yes, Wie missed yet another cut on the PGA Tour when heat exhaustion forced her out of the John Deere Classic on Friday, making her 0-for-5 when she plays with the big boys. And no, she hasn’t won on the LPGA Tour yet.
Gove, frankly, sounds a lot like that guy who pissed and moaned about Danica Patrick‘s Indy 500 run last year — even though she beat his ass fair and square. She didn’t win, but she outdrove her critic, placing fourth overall (that didn’t stop his whinging).
But here’s the thing: Wie is 16 years old. 16. And for all the salivating over Tiger Woods, he didn’t qualify for a pro tournament until he was 19 (and he just lost out of one major tournament or another). So, already we have her being held to a higher standard than Tiger Woods, who was undoubtedly held to a higher standard than white players (and certainly wasn’t immune from stupid “fried chicken and watermelon” cracks from commentators and the golf old guard).
But Wie, by all accounts, is even better at 16 than Woods was.
Like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Wie is one of those spectacular talents who comes around once in a generation. She has a naturally sweet swing that other pros spend hours trying to master, and the length to hang with the men. Her irons and short game are coming along nicely, though her putting still needs some work. When it comes to composure and steely focus, she could teach men and women a decade older a thing or two.
. . .
“She’s better than Tiger was at 16,” said Joe Ogilvie, the second-round leader at the Deere Classic. “I played with Tiger, and Tiger wasn’t this good.
“Everybody is like, `Win, win, win,'” Ogilvie added. “She’s 16. Chill out. Once she gets to winning, you’ll get sick of her winning.”
And, again, she’s still younger than James, Jordan or Woods was when they broke out (though someone who knows more about basketball than I do can tell me whether Jordan could have played in the pros while he was in college, since drafting right out of high school wasn’t done then). She might not be getting this kind of pressure if she had stayed in the juniors or the LPGA tour, but she’s daring to challenge men, so she’s held to a higher standard.
What’s interesting is that her presence on the men’s tour is stirring up interest in even the relatively obscure tournaments, which — despite what critics like Gove have to say — is good for the sport at a time when Woods is, well, a bit disappointing.
She also has a different way of doing things. Instead of learning to win on the junior circuit or staying put on the LPGA Tour, Wie has carved out her own niche. She wants to hone her game against the best and become a global icon, and the surest way to do both is by playing a mixture of men’s and women’s events.
That has rankled plenty, though. Many LPGA Tour players resent the attention she gets and what they see as free passes. Some on the PGA Tour think she’s taking spots away from a deserving journeyman or up-and-comer.
All of which misses the point. No matter where she plays, Wie is good for golf.
Played the week before the British Open, the Deere Classic is a smaller tournament that could easily go by unnoticed. Most of the big names are either in Europe or on their way there, leaving a field full of mostly anonymous guys scrambling to climb the money list.
Bring Wie in, though, and suddenly everybody pays attention.
“Having her brings the avid golf fan who understands she’s doing things no 16-year-old, certainly no woman has ever done, and the casual golf fan who knows her as one of the famous people in the world,” tournament director Clair Peterson said.
“She does what any event wants, and that’s bring more people.”
She’s even got male fans who’ll do body paint. I’ve seen this kind of phenomenon before, where female athletes capture the attention of male fans who appreciate the way they play the game. I went to UConn, where the men’s and women’s basketball teams began to gather national attention around the same time. They always had a local audience, and a rabid one at that (other than the Whalers, who blew out of town, Connecticut has no pro sports teams, and with something like 70% of UConn alumni living within an hour and a half of the Hartford Civic Center, there was a built-in audience). But still, the women’s team didn’t attract nearly the attention that the men’s team did — until they won the NCAA tournament in 1995. I graduated law school the next year and lived at home for a while, taking the bus into Hartford. During basketball season, the men on the bus would discuss the women’s game, since the women were having a far more electrifying experience at that point — the men in the mid-90s were a bit disappointing after their early 90s breakout (and prior to their late-90s success, where they caught up to the women).
So quitcher bitchin’, boys. Women are good for the game.
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