By Doug Ferguson
Associated Press Golf Writer
Michelle Wie tuned up Tuesday for the final stage of LPGA Tour qualifying, which could be the five most important rounds of a career that already has brought the 19-year-old massive fame, millions of dollars but no trophies.
One hour west of the Q-school caldron in Daytona Beach, Fla., another talented teen had no such worries.
Vicky Hurst, the 18-year-old whom some consider the next great American player, spent last year toiling on the Duramed Futures Tour, which offers scant prize money and even less recognition.
She won five times in 13 starts, two of those victories sandwiched around high school graduation, and was the tour’s rookie and player of the year. She set a Futures Tour record for earnings ($93,107) and her 54-hole score of 198 at the Jalapeno Golf Classic in Texas broke by one shot the record previously held by Lorena Ochoa.
Hurst took only three exemptions to play on the LPGA Tour. All she cared about was finishing in the top 10 to earn an LPGA card.
“I’m really proud of myself,” Hurst said. “I enjoyed playing on the Futures Tour. I just focused on finishing strong, playing my best day by day. I wasn’t focusing on winning the tournament, just seeing how low I could shoot. I was having so much fun playing with those girls. It was a blast for me.”
A straight line – the shortest distance between two points – is not always the most glamorous.
Wie has been all over the map.
She is different from most players in so many ways, starting with her capacity to dream big and hit it long. Wie qualified for her first LPGA Tour event at age 12, played in the final group of an LPGA major at age 13 and a year later entered the record books with a 68 at the Sony Open, the lowest score by a female golfer competing against men.
Her popularity at a peak, she had unlimited options and took just as many turns.
She could have petitioned the LPGA Tour to waive its minimum age requirement (18) after turning pro a week before her 16th birthday. Despite playing only eight times in her first year as a pro, Wie earned the equivalent of 15th on the money list.
Instead, she played on six circuits around the world – the LPGA, Europe, Japan, Korea, PGA Tour and U.S. Open qualifying. Her schedule was irrational at times, especially when she flew from Hawaii to Switzerland to Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks to compete against the men.
Then came wrist injuries in 2007 and a stubborn refusal to take time off to heal. That yielded high scores, shattered confidence and bad decisions, none worse than withdrawing from one tournament (citing injury) and practicing on the weekend for the next one.
And then she went to Stanford, where she tried to mix college and golf.
Now, she has arrived at the most critical juncture of her career. The final stage of Q-school starts Wednesday at LPGA International, and while Wie appears to be regaining her form, she has not competed since getting through the first stage nearly three months ago.
The LPGA Tour is desperate for attention, and no one delivers like Wie.
But in this case, Wie needs the LPGA Tour every bit as much as it needs her.
“What other options do we have?” B.J. Wie said this summer when debating whether his daughter should go to Q-school. No other player moves the needle in women’s golf like Wie, and she would have no trouble getting her six exemptions. But as her father said, exemptions only made sense when she was in high school.
No one wants to go through Q-school, although it doesn’t mean Wie has failed. For players such as Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak, that was the first stop on their way to the World Golf Hall of Fame.
And if it doesn’t work out this week? Hurst proved there are other avenues.
It has not been an easy journey for the teenager from Melbourne, Fla. Hurst was 15 and trying to qualify for the Ginn Open when her father died of a massive stroke. Too young to apply for Q-school, she tried qualifying on the Futures Tour last fall and finished first. Hurst felt confident she could earn her card, so she turned pro in March.
Six weeks later, she won the first of five tournaments.
Wie has tried a little bit of everything. Stacy Lewis, who recovered from a serious back surgery in high school, spent four years at Arkansas and tried to earn her card through LPGA exemptions (the tour did not count her third-place finish at the U.S. Women’s Open).
Hurst isn’t about to offer them – or anyone else – any advice.
“Through my experience, it’s totally up to what you feel confident doing,” she said. “Stacy has gone to college and played on exemptions. Michelle has played well and now is going through Q-school. Everyone is different. Everyone peaks at a different age. It’s up to you and the people around you who really know you.
“But the player is the only one who knows if they’re ready.”
Hurst traveled the Futures Tour with her mother, Koko, and by the end of the year she was making hotel and rental car arrangements, and planning her schedule to keep herself fresh.
She is nine months younger than Wie, and already has a job on the LPGA Tour. If she lives up to her potential, fame will follow.