Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Wie has already
won with the fans

PGA tourney hosts concede
the teen has stolen the show

SILVIS, Ill. » Michelle Wie, the 15-year-old golf phenom from Hawaii, has been here just a few days, and the scorekeeping doesn't start until tomorrow. But she is already the favorite subject of water-cooler, hair-salon and riverboat-casino chatter in the down-home Quad Cities that flank the Mississippi like the huge galleries surrounding the fairways whenever and wherever Wie plays.

Michelle Mania has hit middle America, and at this point, they might as well call it the Wie Invitational instead of the John Deere Classic.

Oh, the golf fans are interested, too.

There hasn't been so much excitement around this tournament since 1996, when a young rookie pro named Eldrick Woods nearly got his first PGA Tour victory here.

"We had a chance with Tiger to make history, now we do with Michelle," said Marc Nesseler, sports editor of the Moline Dispatch, which features Wie in a special section today. "It would be a lot more work for me, but I'm hoping for her to make this the first place she makes the cut (in a PGA Tour men's tournament)."

Wie's nearly universal appeal goes beyond her ability to hit a golf ball more than 300 yards and compete with pros of either gender.

Why is she so popular, even with people who don't know the difference between a slice and a bogey? And people who don't even live in Hawaii?

"A, she's a woman. B, she's a teenager and she's a fresh face in a sports world that doesn't have a lot of fresh faces," Nesseler said.

Even the defending champion of this event, Mark Hensby, concedes that the Punahou School student has stolen the show before it's even begun.

"Michelle Wie is the story this week," said Hensby, who then compared Wie's popularity to that of her idol, Woods. "It's something that ... every week, if Tiger is playing, it doesn't really matter if you're the defending champ or not. That's just the way golf is, and that's just the way it is."

Wie's practice round with Tour pros Craig Bowden (whom she played with at the Sony Open), Zach Johnson and Aaron Baddeley attracted the largest gallery yesterday. It promised to multiply in this morning's Pro-Am with another media magnet, Shigeki Maruyama of Japan. Tomorrow when the tournament (Wie's first men's PGA Tour event outside of Hawaii) actually begins, the gallery will grow yet again when she tees off. And it won't be because of her playing partners, Nick Watney and Scott Gutschewski.

Many of the top men took this tournament off to prepare for next week's British Open -- there's no Tiger, Phil, Ernie or Vijay. And that means Wie has a better chance of making the cut after Friday's second round than she would in a full field of top PGA Tour talent.

After playing with her yesterday, Johnson said making the top 70 in the 156-player field shouldn't be Wie's only goal this week.

"I think she can maybe be in contention (to win). I think she can make the cut, yes. I think she can be in contention if she plays really well," he said.

Wie said she'll measure her success against the Tournament Players Club at Deere Run course rather than the field.

"Just shooting a certain score," she said, declining to reveal the number. "If I say it out loud ... I'm very superstitious and I won't be able to play it."

Wie has won over most of the male pros she's played with at two Sony Opens (she missed the cut by one stroke in 2004), a Canadian Tour event and a Nationwide Tour tournament.

But there are still those who object to her taking a spot in the field via sponsor exemption. In their minds, it gives Wie a free pass for the publicity she brings. They would rather see a more experienced player get the break, or at least have Wie get in via a qualifying tournament.

"I'm perplexed," said PGA Tour regular Hunter Mahan. "It makes no sense. She's going to be a great player. There could be a time for her on this tour, but I don't think it's now. I think there are a lot of amateurs who are just as good who have as much right as her to be playing here. To help the game sounds like a made-up reason."

Wie, who is also scheduled to play in next week's men's Amateur Public Links Championship, said she doesn't let the opinions that don't support her presence bother her.

"Well, I don't really pay attention to them," she said. "I mean, I know they're always going to be there, and there are some people that are always against me. But you know, I just have to realize that I'm having a lot of fun, and this is what I want to do and I'm not going to stop just for them."

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