Nicole Castrale had felt an eerie calm throughout the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika at RiverTowne Country Club in Mount Pleasant, S.C. It didn't dissipate when rains soaked her last Saturday or when gusty winds battered her on the front nine on Sunday. And it didn't shatter later in that final round, as she stood on the tee on the par-3 17th staring at a yawning expanse of marsh between her and the pin, and at a two-stroke gap separating her and leader Lorena Ochoa, the top-ranked player in the world. But after Castrale birdied the hole and Ochoa bogeyed, bringing Castrale within reach of her first LPGA title, well, she said, "That's when I got nervous."
Castrale hid her anxiety well. She coolly matched Ochoa's par on 18, forcing a playoff. Then, after Ochoa blasted her tee shot into the reeds on the first extra hole and had to take a drop, Castrale hit the fairway with her drive and reached the green in regulation, two putting for par. Ochoa, who had started the day with a three-shot lead, had a chance to extend the playoff, but her 18-footer for par slid past the hole, dropping her to 0Ã¢â‚¬"4 in playoffs and making Castrale, a 28-year-old from Glendale, Calif., the sixth first-time winner on tour this year.
Until those last few holes, the most riveting moments at Annika Sorenstam's signature tournament had come during its first hours, when Michelle Wie, playing in her first event since injuring her left wrist in February, made a controversial withdrawal near the end of a disastrous opening round. After Wie parred her first hole, the 10th, little went right for the 17-year-old multimillionaire. On the par-3 14th she made a triple bogey making her seven over par after five holes. Michelle's father, B.J., nearly exacerbated her plight on that hole. After Michelle hit her tee shot into the woods and declared the ball unplayable, B.J. was overheard saying something within earshot of his daughter and her caddie, David Clark. That could've been construed as giving unauthorized advice, which carries a two-shot penalty. One of Michelle's playing partners, Janice Moodie, asked B.J. if he had said anything.
"He said, 'No,' so end of story," said Moodie. Soon after, however, B.J. stopped rules official Angus McKenzie and told him that he had asked Clark if he knew what Michelle's options were. Said McKenzie, "I told him that as far as I was concerned it wasn't [a problem] as long as the player hadn't asked for or was given advice. But when in doubt, don't [speak to the player or the caddie]."
On the par-5 3rd, Wie pushed her tee shot way right, onto a street bordering the course. Her ball hit a parked car and rolled into a storm drain. She then hooked a provisional into a water hazard. Her third drive found the rough, and from there she finished what she called "a very unfortunate hole" with a quintuple-bogey 10.
Par at RiverTowne is 72, so as Wie's round wound down she was coming closer and closer to a projected final score of 88 or worse, which under LPGA rules would have disqualified her, as a nonmember of the tour, from playing in any more LPGA tournaments this year. That's when things got interesting outside the ropes. Wie's manager, Greg Nared of the William Morris Agency, who had been following Michelle's progress, was on his cellphone as Michelle played the 6th (her 15th) hole, and he spent much of that hole and the 7th either on the phone or talking with Wie's parents. Shortly after Wie teed off on number 7, LPGA officials started showing up in golf carts. At one point LPGA senior VP and chief operating officer Chris Higgs, who was in a cart with some Ginn clients, spoke with Nared. After bogeying the 7th to go 14 over for 16 holes, Wie was walking toward the 8th tee when Nared stopped her, a move that seemed to startle her. They had a brief conversation, then Wie called over a rules official and told him, "We're not going to play anymore." She cited pain in her left wrist as her reason for withdrawing, explaining later that she had "tweaked" the wrist in the middle of the round.
The episode raised plenty of questions, given that many parties have an interest in keeping Wie eligible for LPGA events, including the LPGA. Whose idea was it for Wie to withdraw? And why just then? "Usually you withdraw when you feel as if you should, not when someone tells you to withdraw," says Alena Sharp, the third member of Wie's group. "I knew that something was going on, because I saw some LPGA officials hanging around on our last few holes. I don't know if they anticipated it or what, but normally we don't have LPGA officials following us."
Wie family spokesperson Jesse Derris said that Wie did not know about the 88 rule, and he wasn't sure if Nared did. "All he talked to Michelle about [at the 8th tee] was her health," said Derris. "He asked Michelle how she was feeling, and Michelle said, 'Not that great.'" Then, according to Derris, Nared asked if she thought she'd be able to play the next day. "That's when she decided to withdraw," said Derris. "She made the decision. It's always Michelle's decision."
One thing that was clear is that Wie, who hasn't made a cut since last summer, is off her game. Moodie said it seemed obvious to her that Wie was having difficulties with her wrist. "She wasn't going after it as hard as she normally does," said Moodie. "She must have been in pain or guarding it." Added Sharp, "She was hitting it to the right a lot. She couldn't release the club."
Despite her travails, Wie was upbeat about her prospects of playing in this week's McDonald's LPGA Championship. "The last thing I want to do is not play next week," she said before leaving RiverTowne. "I'm really excited to get back in the game and play in tournaments again."
Castrale, who has had three operations on her shoulders since she was in a car accident in 2001, her senior year at Southern Cal, saw her patience rewarded. After she had accepted a check for $390,000, a weighty wrought-iron trophy, a champagne shower and a kiss from her caddie-husband, Craig, her outward calm had still not broken. "I don't think this has fully sunk in yet," she said. "I've worked really hard the last couple of years, and I've been close this year. This was my week, I guess."