Girl, interrupted

Michelle Wie shot a one-over 143 Monday in trying to earn one of 18 qualifying spots for the U.S. Open.

This article first appeared in the May 24, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated.

In the history of American golf, nothing is as Old Guard as U.S. Open sectional qualifying — two rounds in one day, often played on sly courses designed by imported Scotsmen that are guarded by clubhouses with creaking steps and suspect plumbing. On Monday alone there were 10 qualifying events across the country, with a total of 577 golfers playing for 56 spots in the field of the U.S. Open. As June final exams go, it’s about as tough as it gets.

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Among those 577 golfers — including Mark O’Meara and Tom Lehman and other winners of major championships — there was only one woman, Michelle Wie, a Hawaiian teenager whose parents were born in Korea. Maybe you’ve seen her on 60 Minutes. Wie does things her own way. She turned pro last year, while still a junior in high school. At 13 she was already talking about wanting to play on the PGA Tour. Now, at 16, she’s getting closer. The old order, the old way of thinking, got nicked Monday.

It was an important step. On Monday there was a girl playing with the boys for the first time in a USGA sectional qualifier. A girl who, in the wet gray cool of early morning, was wearing dangling earrings and clam-digger pants and a coral-colored sweater that would look good on only one other golfer — Arnold Palmer. Michelle Wie was at the Canoe Brook Country Club in the wilds of northern New Jersey, trying to earn a place in the field at the 106th U.S. Open, this year at Winged Foot, a tournament for which Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have already secured their spots. No woman has ever played in a U.S. Open before — or the Masters or the British Open or the PGA Championship. No woman, for that matter, has played in the NBA or fought for the heavyweight title of the world, but things are changing. You’ve heard of Danica Patrick, right? Michelle Wie didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open this year — she needs to fix her putting game from 10 feet and in — but some year she will. So will other women whose names we don’t yet know.

Early Monday morning she was on the practice tee at Canoe Brook, warming up for a 12-hour day of golf. The other golfers — at Canoe Brook there were 153 golfers playing for 18 spots — were using the garden-variety striped range balls issued by the club. Wie, the youngest golfer in the field, was not. Her father, B.J., came onto the range carrying a plastic shopping bag filled with brand-new Nike practice balls, the brand she is paid to play, part of an overall endorsement deal worth over $10 million. It takes chutzpah to show up at a USGA event with your own practice balls, but the three Wies — father, daughter and mother Bo —are not slaves to convention. B.J. Wie is more Richard Williams (father of Serena and Venus) than Earl Woods. For years now people have been saying that Michelle Wie should be playing against other girls in junior events, learning how to win. The father has never stopped to ask why.

But even while trying to do something new, there was something lost-world about the golf at Canoe Brook. There were a couple hundred spectators when she and her two playing partners, former PGA Tour winner David Gossett and club pro Rick Hartmann, played their morning round. The spectators wandered across the fairways and made paths for the golfers with gallery ropes and with minimal supervision, just like in the old sepia-toned clips from the early Bobby Jones days. Of course, living in the times we do, ESPN was there, talk radio was there, TV Ashai was there. But the crowd following them — over 1,000 by cocktail hour — was mostly real golf fans, there on the hope that they’d see something new.

“If you have the opportunity to see something historic, and you can do it, why wouldn’t you?” said Robert Macdonald, a publisher of golf books.

Wie drove it with her playing partners, hit the ball as high as her playing partners, chatted (at least a little) with her playing partners. She putted like Fred Couples. Over 36 holes she missed once from five feet, twice from four feet, once from two feet. In the morning, on the South Course, she shot 68, two under par, and after lunch, on the more difficult North Course, she shot 75, three over par. She needed a two-round total of 138 to qualify for Winged Foot. This year she missed. But there’s next year and 30 more next years after that. All she did Monday was not make it. There are more believers now than there were before.

In the gallery on Monday at Canoe Brook was Nicole Sikora, 23 years old and an aspiring professional, watching Wie in person for the first time and soaking up everything. “She can change the whole game,” Sikora said. “Look at her. She’s not a girl playing golf. She’s one of them.” Sikora’s looking to be one of them too.

Wie is still going to school, in every sense. On Monday she made a decidedly minor faux pas. She hit a wild push off the 18th tee in the first round, and only wet rough kept her ball from going in a pond. Distracted by this near-calamity, she left her extra long tee, marked by stripes, right where she had planted it. In golf, as in life, you’re supposed to clean up after yourself. Hartmann, playing after her, bent over to put his peg in and tossed Wie’s tee to the side. Gossett, who knows the rich and fallow periods golf can bring, pocketed this semi-exotic little souvenir. At that point the day showed nothing but promise. By nightfall, looking through a longer lens, it still did.