Watching the highlights of a beaming Michelle Wie float off the final green at LPGA Q-School took me back in time a few years, to when she was one of the world’s most charismatic athletes and her future seemed so limitless. The last two years have been a horror show, but I’ve watched it from afar, which has deadened some of the impact. From 2004 to 06, I regularly covered Wie, and some of the images from those glory days remain indelible.
Lately most of the golf news has been doom-and-gloom about shrinking schedules and nervous sponsors. Wie’s success at Q-School is exactly what the sport needed, as her renaissance will be one of the dominant storylines of the coming season. I can’t wait to watch her again, with a fresh set of eyes.
It can be hard to remember, but before all the teary press conferences and ambulance rides and hasty withdrawals, Wie made a habit of doing amazing things on the golf course. I followed every shot of her bogeyless third round at the 2004 Dinah Shore, when at age 14 she put herself in contention to win the LPGA’s most glamorous event. The gallery was utterly flabbergasted by her poise and talent, as was I. After the round she worked on her putting for nearly an hour, and then headed to the range, even as it was getting increasingly dark and chilly. I stood a few feet behind her, the only person on the range besides her parents, watching her shots trace a majestic arc against the sky. I felt a little bit like O.B. Keeler, minus the fedora.
The following summer I caught a redeye to the usually forgettable U.S. Publinks because Wie was storming through the bracket and needed only a few more match-play wins to secure a victory and the Masters invitation that would come with it. The host venue, Shaker Run Golf Club, is set amidst the corn fields of Lebanon, Ohio. It has only a tiny parking lot, which would have been fine for the usually miniscule crowds at the Publinks, but not with Wie in the mix. I’ll never forget the drive to the course — the final mile leading to Shaker Run was bumper-to-bumper with parked automobiles on both sides of the road. Every day, hundreds of golf fans hoofed up the long, steep road for a chance to glimpse Wie and, possibly, history.
The next year I followed Wie for her second round at the Sony Open. In high winds she shot a brilliant 68 that was bettered by only 11 players that day. Watching her shape the ball both ways against the breeze, it was obvious how much her game had matured. A couple of months later, at the Dinah, she led by one stroke with five holes to play. I raced out to catch her on the par-3 16th hole. Just as I arrived behind the green, a deafening roar came from the direction of the 18th — Karrie Webb had just jarred her approach for an eagle that put her two strokes up. Undeterred, Wie stepped up and played a tee shot that never left the flag, her ball stopping a few inches from an ace that might have defined her forever.
Wie’s struggles over the past two years have been so profound that a lot of people seem to have forgotten the magic she brought to golf. Last week’s dueling Q-Schools were a reminder of Wie’s latent starpower. Even with Harrison Frazar shooting a 59, hardly anyone was paying attention to the PGA Tour hopefuls and journeymen. But thanks to Wie, the LPGA qualifying tournament attracted unprecedented galleries and generated near-constant updates on the Golf Channel.
Now that Wie is a full-blown member of the tour, she will make her ’09 debut in February at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, on the North Shore of Oahu, not far from where she grew up. In the past Wie was compelled to skip the event because she was limited to only six sponsors’ exemptions per season. Given Wie’s flair for the dramatic — and a game that looks sounder and more explosive by the minute — I wouldn’t be surprised if she won the event to kick off a monster year.
I’m not taking any chances: I’ve already called dibs on covering the tournament, because I want to be there to see the latest act in a career that just became even more intriguing.