PGA Tour Confidential: Michelle Wie's Debut

PGA Tour Confidential: Michelle Wie’s Debut

Michelle Wie lost a three-shot lead on the back nine Saturday to lose the SBS Open to Angela Stanford.
Robert Beck/SI

Every week of the 2009 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Welcome back, earthlings, for another installment of Tour Confidential, where we pass the giblets weekly on what’s happening in golf.

The story of the week was Michelle Wie’s debut as a member of the LPGA. She lost to Angela Stanford in a final-round duel at the SBS Open, which the Golf Channel tried to paint as an Angela charge. (She did fire three straight birdies in high winds.) But Wie looked like a 19-year-old rookie, making half a dozen mistakes in the final round to lose a three-shot lead with eight holes to play.

So, let’s reconvene the debate on whether Wie can be a savior for the LPGA, and will she? (Those are two different questions.) I’ll start the can-she answers by saying yes. She is the most recognizable name and face on the tour. Her parents brilliantly marketed her into a name player, worth millions, but it came at the expense of her game. When she should have been learning how to win, how to play with a lead on the final nine against her peers in junior and amateur golf, she was grandstanding against professional men.

She is on the upswing, yes, but I don’t sense that her game is as big as we once thought it was. And anyone would have a tough time winning with regularity against a flock of young talent that includes Lorena Ochoa, Ji-Yai Shin (who may well surpass Lorena), Ai Miyazato, Yani Tseng and others. She still has a ways to go before she’s a polished player.

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: I agree with Vans about the SBS coverage. Golf Channel fell all over itself trying not to say Michelle coughed it up. This never happened to Tiger, did it?

Farrell Evans, writer-reporter, Sports Illustrated: I think Wie will win at least twice this year and blow another three or four chances, due primarily to inexperience. Sadly, her body and swing have outpaced her golf I.Q. She won’t become a consistent player until she figures out how to play the game. She’s got all the shots, but she doesn’t always know when to use them. Leadbetter and company should step back and let her learn the ropes. She’s got everything else.

Van Sickle: I like Farrell’s points. Her inexperience showed Sunday. She blew two 3-wood shots to the right, into trouble, and probably didn’t choose the optimum place to take a drop after one of them, which led to her double. Trailing by three on the par-5 18th that Golf Channel announcers said she might be able to reach in two, Wie inexplicably played it safe and hit 3-wood instead of driver, thus eliminating any hope of making the eagle that she needed. As Brandel Chamblee said in the Golf Channel studio, “If you’ve got a gun, shoot it.”

The LPGA could really use Wie or some other American player to step forward and help carry the game. Only four Americans are among the top 20 in the Rolex world rankings. That’s Paula Creamer, No. 3; Cristie Kerr, No. 7; Angela Stanford, No. 8, and Morgan Pressel, No. 19.

Two wildcards to consider about Wie. First, she’s been around since she was 12, but she’s only 19. In five years, she’ll be a much better player and only 24. She could dominate if she gains the necessary experience, continues to improve and doesn’t O.D. on being a media star.

Second, she’s the only player I can think of who has ever tried to play tour golf as a professional while attending college. (And it’s Stanford, not Phys. Ed Major U.) College will make her a well-rounded person, but in the short term, it’s not helping her play on the LPGA.

Friedman: Is Angela Stanford the new sheriff in town, or is this just a hot streak?

Evans: Of course not. She’s a solid player who showed that she can control her ball under some pretty windy conditions, but if she’s a world beater then the LPGA Tour is in trouble.

Jim Herre, editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Stanford is for real. When a player can pick up right where he/she left off the year before, you know the good play is more than a streak.

Van Sickle: Lorena Ochoa still has to be the unquestioned top gun in women’s golf until Stanford or someone else starts beating her like a drum. I know some observers think Yani Tseng is a serious contender for the crown, and Angela Park is a sweet ballstriker, but I’d put my money on Korea’s Ji-Yai Shin to reach No. 1 before Stanford. It’s hard to argue with Shin’s 20 wins in the last two seasons, which included a major.

Evans: Commissioner Carolyn Bivens sounded almost somber in her announcement about the LPGA’s new 10-year TV deal with the Golf Channel.

Van Sickle: The LPGA may be in trouble for reasons other than that. How about the tour dumping SBS as an international broadcast partner to go with an unestablished rival? The SBS head was livid that he didn’t get a chance to negotiate against his rival’s bid, and SBS is now out as sponsor of this Hawaiian event. Even more incredible, the Golf Channel crew didn’t so much as make a mention of this, certainly not during a scripted “interview” (or should I say commercial) with an SBS official. The only guy with the guts to say anything was Mark Rolfing, who cryptically signed off the Saturday telecast by saying he hoped the LPGA would be back in Hawaii with another tournament next year.

SBS is out because the LPGA booted them, and now the SBS Open is a goner. Golf Channel is in bed with these tours and cannot legitimately report the news — what a shame.

Friedman: This deal strikes me as a win-win for both parties. It gives the channel several hours of reliable, if not necessarily splashy, programming each week.

Kind of the same reason NBC booked Jay Leno for every night in prime time next season.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Plus: Any way you look at it, those two deals the LPGA rolled out this week were solid. Especially in this economy. Most people don’t realize the LPGA’s single largest source of income is Korean TV rights.

Van Sickle: The figures weren’t released, but I’ve heard the LPGA got chump change from Golf Channel, something like $30 million over 10 years. That’s just $3 million a year, nothing in TV money. On the surface, it sounds great that the seldom-seen LPGA is getting onto the Golf Channel, but how’s it going to work? Sunday at Golf Channel is already loaded with European Tour, Nationwide, PGA Tour, Champions Tour and late-night PGA Tour replays. Where’s the room to squeeze in even two hours of live LPGA coverage, or even two hours of tape-delayed coverage?

Gorant: Golf Channel also runs a lot of tournaments on tape delay, which really saps the watchability, if that’s a word.

Friedman: For me, anything that avoids another infomercial builds credibility!

Van Sickle: Then again, Golf Channel could make room in its programming schedule on Sundays by eliminating the Champions Tour. Which tour is more appealing to viewers, the old guys with familiar names like Watson and Kite, or the women? I’m not sure.

Gorant: Someone should organize a Ryder Cup-type showdown between the LPGA and Champions tours for rights to the noon Sunday time slot. Now that would be good TV!

Van Sickle: It might behoove the women, or any tour looking for better exposure, to have more Saturday finishes, like they had this week.

Herre: I enjoyed watching Fulton Allem try to catch Mike Goodes Sunday on the Champions tour. Fulty is just the kind of guy that tour needs. Someone with a pulse. A real character.

David Dusek, deputy editor, So Jim was the one watching the Champions Tour.

Herre: Hey, it’s my livelihood.

Evans: The Champions Tour has lots of characters like Fulton. But people enjoy Fulton in their Wednesday four-ball, not on their TV screens.

Van Sickle: Champions Tour watchers are looking for the favorite old-time players. After Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Jerry Pate, I’m not sure who else moves the needle. Fred Funk? Loren Roberts? Maybe. The Champions Tour is an event best enjoyed live.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: What needle does Pate move? Maybe a few nervous quilters in his family but that’s it…

Friedman: The Walrus is at least fun to watch. Watching Langer is like being in a time warp. Fred Couples turns 50 in October…

Ryan Reiterman, producer, On the other end of the spectrum, 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa is making his debut at the Northern Trust this week. Anyone know what the hype’s all about, and should we expect anything from him?

Evans: Ishikawa has as good a chance of winning as Phil Mickelson right now. He’s a good young player, learning how to play in the states before he heads to the Masters.

Gorant: Seems like Ishikawa is the real deal, but I think even he admitted he’d be surprised if he made the cut this week.

Dusek: Especially on a classically quirky track like Riviera.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: There’s a painfully obvious lack of star power on the PGA Tour right now. The best thing that could possibly happen at Riviera would be a victory by either Fred Couples or Ernie Els, preferably in a sudden-death playoff.

Van Sickle: He’d be surprised if he made the cut this week? Did you mean Ryo or Phil? Sorry, Phil. Just kidding around. Get well soon. An agent type I talked to (not Ryo’s) said he’s the real deal, talent-wise, not just another overrated youngster.

Evans: Vans, I heard the same thing about Ty Tryon.

Gorant: I don’t know. This kid’s won twice on the Japan tour. Don’t think Ty Tryon could even stick on the Japan tour today.

Herre: For those who may not know, Ty is married, has a child and is kicking around the Florida minitours. I can’t believe Ryo won’t be joined by Rory McIlroy, who will be spending his week at the Titleist Performance Center in Carlsbad instead of at the Riv. What were the Northern Trust people thinking?

Van Sickle: Yeah, Rory has already proven he’s the real deal. Bonehead move of the year was Northern Trust turning down Rory’s request for a sponsor’s exemption this week. He’s ranked top 20 in the world. Not sure what the story is there. Free Rory.

Morfit: Agreed that was a major brain cramp, and it’ll come back to bite ’em. The pros don’t forget a thing like that. (Then again, post-exemption loyalty only goes so far, considering Tiger’s recent record in Milwaukee.)

Shipnuck: Sponsors’ exemptions are almost always used to repay burnt-out old pros who have, ahem, supported the tourney through the years. It would be nice if more were invested on promising youngsters, but sponsors would rather have a recognizable name who will come to a cocktail party and perform.

Van Sickle: Mike Van Sickle and I agree with Shipwreck. Billy Andrade doesn’t sell any tickets for you.

Evans: I’m hoping that Vincent Johnson, the recipient of the first Sifford exemption for diversity, can hold his own at Rivera. Lord knows, there could be a backlash from the purists if he shoots 85.

Shipnuck: He’s gonna miss the cut by a mile, but I doubt there will be a backlash. Even narrow-minded “purists” know the game must grow and the Tour’s homogeneity hurts the sport’s image.

Van Sickle: Anyone want to bemoan the state of celebrity-ism at the AT&T? Kevin James and Ray Romano continued their perfect record of nine straight years without saying or doing anything funny during the golf telecast.

Gorant: Don’t dis the Mall Cop. My 7-year old son loved that movie.

Van Sickle: Perhaps Kevin and Ray need a better scriptwriter for their golf appearances then. Or at least a Segway.

Morfit: I saw Kevin James do something funny. He left Spyglass Hill surrounded by his posse after Thursday’s round, blowing right past the autograph-seekers, the media and everyone else, as if he were a major big shot. Must have been an emergency down at the mall.

Friedman: I had sympathy for and empathy with 16-handicapper Dennis Haysbert from CBS’s (of course!) The Unit when his shanked tee shot was subjected to a SwingVision dissection.

Shipnuck: The shank swing analysis was, for me, the highlight of the week. A close second was Faldo’s endless hazing of Tim Finchem.

Morfit: I remember CBS analyzing a shank by Darren Clarke at the PGA at Whistling Straits. That was more fun because it was an actual pro. I can’t believe I actually once wrote a story about the shanks and someone actually printed it. (Thanks, Jim!).

Evans: I’m tired of Bill Murray.

Herre: I still get a kick out of Murray, although off-camera he can go Joaquin Phoenix on you.

Van Sickle: I’m not tired of Bill Murray because of CBS’s coverage. They actually showed him playing a few strokes this year, instead of ignoring him as usual, but made sure not to get a mic anywhere near him or show any of his antics. In person, he puts on a six-hour display of standup on the golf course. It is funny if you’re walking with his group. He gives a hell of an effort.

Reiterman: Anyone think Tiger comes back at the Match Play? I know Accenture is a sponsor of his, but possibly playing Wednesday-Sunday, plus 36 on Sunday, doesn’t sound like a good plan when coming back from knee surgery. I think Doral will be the spot. He stays close to home for two events in Florida before the Masters.

Herre: I like the Doral/Bay Hill/Masters scenario as well.

Van Sickle: But match play also has a plus side. Tiger can return at Tucson, play so-so and get eliminated right away. If he loses, he’s rusty. If he wins, oh my god, he’s Tiger. It’s a no-lose deal. And if he loses in the first round, he can cross another commitment off his 15-tourney list and make Finchem feel like he’s doing his part. It’s almost a freebie for Tiger. That said, I agree that Doral makes sense. I don’t think Tiger is a big fan of desert golf.