Failure to Launch

The website for this week's 84 Lumber Classic at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa., features photographs of Clint Black, who will play Friday night at the resort; the Black Eyed Peas, who are scheduled to perform Saturday; and Michelle Wie, the 16-year-old who paints her fingernails black and who will take the stage Thursday and Friday and disappear on the weekend, if form holds.

Wie, an LPGA headliner, can't help herself when it comes to being a PGA sideshow. Maybe she really wanted to fly from Honolulu to Crans-Sur-Sierre, Switzerland, after her first week of high school, to tee it up in a second-tier Euro tour event last week, or maybe she was doing her watch sponsor a favor, but whatever the case she shot 78-79 at the Omega European Masters to finish last. It was her 9th MC in 10 tries at competing with the men (she made a check at the SK Telecom Open in South Korea this year) and called into question whether she's getting closer or further away from achieving her goal of playing on the weekend on one of the world's premier tours, and eventually (ahem) making the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Kierkegaard said, "Purity of heart is to will one thing," but it's hard to fathom what one thing Wie is up to. Yet her peripatetic career is only the most prominent distress signal among teens and 20-somethings, especially Americans. You know there's a disturbing trend away from the precocity of youth when U.S. Ryder Cup captains keep turning to 40- and 50-something stalwarts like Scott Verplank (next week) and Jay Haas (2004) while onetime whiz kids like 27-year-old Charles Howell III stay home.

Ten years ago I watched Howell play in the AJGA's Canon Cup, a Ryder Cup style event that pits East vs. West juniors against one another. He was so good that there was no question he'd beat Utah's Boyd Summerhays, a good player who also is now on Tour. And yet I'm not sure Howell has improved. He's still racked up only one Tour victory, the 2002 Michelob Classic, which is the same number as David Gossett, who's off the Tour, but one more than Justin Rose, 26, who led through 54 holes of the Bell Canadian Open but shot 74 on Sunday to tie for 14th place.

Glory's waiting room is getting crowded. The ugly truth is that for every Tiger Woods, who sat in Roger Federer's box while watching the Swiss star dispose of Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open final on Sunday, there are hundreds of absurdly talented players who lose themselves in swing mechanics or burn out on the way to a disturbing failure to launch. Anybody remember 2004 U.S. Open darling Spencer Levin? How about Matt Kuchar, the smiley kid who as a Georgia Tech sophomore finished 21st and 14th at the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open, respectively? How about Ty Tryon? Casey Wittenberg, anybody?

"I was 4 when I started, 14 when I burned out," Reno-Tahoe Open champion Will MacKenzie said earlier this year. "I'd played six to 10 events on the AJGA Tour each summer, and I remember I'd lost this tournament in a playoff at TPC Las Colinas that really bummed me out bad. I'd just quit baseball, and I was sort of mad about that. I grew up skiing and fishing, and I was missing that stuff, so I basically quit the game even though I still played for our high school team so I could get out of school early.

"Everybody was sort of mad at me," MacKenzie continued, "since I was basically the town phenom."

At 19, MacKenzie moved to Montana to snowboard. He returned to Hot Springs, North Carolina, to raft guide and kayak in the summer, but preferred snow. He heli-boarded in Alaska and even thought about turning pro, but his penchant for catching air was almost crippling. He fractured his left ankle, tweaked his left knee and badly wrenched his neck and back.

Drawn once again to the relative calm of golf, he hit balls again for three months at the end of 1999, to see if he was still any good. He was, but it wasn't easy anymore. MacKenzie was having an abysmal 2006 season until he hit the jackpot in Reno three weeks ago, and the question of whether he'll stick on Tour was merely put on hold, not resolved, with his W.

What can we, and more importantly Wie, learn from the tale of Willy Mac? That too much, too soon, isn't just a cliché, and "burnout" is more than just a term for the Jeff Spicolis of the world. Most of all we/Wie can learn the importance of enjoying the ride, and of delving into something other than golf for a while. Wie says she's having fun, and we can only take her at her word. It's anybody's guess how the girl will realize her vast potential or when she will "get it started." Enjoy the Black Eyed Peas, everyone.

Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected].