STAR-BULLETIN / JANUARY 2007
Michelle Wie accepted an invitation and will play in the LPGA's final event this year when the Samsung World Championship begins today at the Bighorn Golf Club in California.
Wie is sending out a message
Finally, some good news for Michelle Wie.
Barring a bad drop that gets her disqualified, or a recurring wrist injury that causes her to withdraw, she is guaranteed her largest paycheck this season. That's only because the Samsung World Championship doesn't have a cut, and last-place money of $12,499 is more than her total earnings on the golf course all year.
But that's beside the point.
The focus has shifted from whether Wie will break par to whether the 17-year-old from Hawaii should even be in the 20-player field gathered at Bighorn Golf Club in the California desert.
Driving the debate is Annika Sorenstam, who this time hammered Wie more through her actions than anything she said.
No one ever imagined Sorenstam, who at this time last year was still No. 1 in the world, would not be eligible for the most elite field in women's golf. The tournament takes the defending champion, the four major champions, the leading money-winner in Europe, one special exemption and the rest from the LPGA Tour money list.
Let's take a quick inventory.
Sorenstam is a five-time winner of the Samsung World Championship. She had gone six consecutive years winning at least one major. And dating to her rookie season, she had gone 12 consecutive years finishing no worse than fourth on the money list.
Then came the unimaginable.
Sorenstam got off to a slow start this year, which later was traced to back and neck injuries that kept her out of competition for two months. She has still not regained her form, failed to record a top-10 finish in the majors for the first time since her rookie season in 1994 and is at No. 32 on the money list.
Considering her 69 victories and the goodwill she has brought the LPGA through her performance, Sorenstam should be able to play wherever she wants.
It would have been a no-brainer to give her the special exemption, except for one problem. It was given to Wie back in March, before the kid went into a tailspin that not even the New York Mets could appreciate.
The perfect scenario for IMG, which runs the tournament and manages Sorenstam, would have been for Wie to give back the exemption based on the state of her game (her average score is 76.7) and so she wouldn't miss a week of her semester at Stanford.
When that didn't happen -- Wie's agent said she was never asked -- IMG and the LPGA Tour decided to "update" the Samsung criteria by adding a new exemption for active Hall of Famers and awarding that to Sorenstam.
Only when she detected some backlash from taking a spot in the coveted field did Sorenstam decide it wasn't worth the hassle. She declined her invitation, ending 12 straight appearances at Samsung.
Tournament officials attributed her decision to "contradictory and confusing information," which means players who thought they were in suddenly realized they were out. That's what happens when you change the rules two weeks before a tournament.
The last spot at Bighorn thus went to Sarah Lee, who has 69 fewer victories and 10 fewer majors than Sorenstam.
In addition, it became clear this "active Hall of Famer" exemption really was an "Annika" exemption, for neither Juli Inkster nor Karrie Webb were offered the invitation, even though both are more qualified than Sorenstam at the moment.
Intentional or not, Sorenstam sent Wie a powerful message about doing the right thing.
Wie doesn't drive ticket sales like she once did. She doesn't make news like she once did, except when she withdraws from a tournament with an injury and is seen hitting balls at the next event two days later. This is her last LPGA Tour event of the year, and having not competed for nearly two months, what can anyone expect?
It gets even messier considering that if not for the special exemption created for Wie, the last spot at Bighorn would have gone to Natalie Gulbis, one of the most popular players on the LPGA Tour whose passion for golf is overshadowed by her good looks.
Gulbis won her first LPGA event this year at the Evian Masters, where she finished 20 ahead of Wie.
If there is a message in all of this for Wie, there is an even stronger message for the LPGA Tour: Stop bending the rules.
This is not the first time the LPGA has changed the criteria at big events to appease sponsors and, not surprisingly, the other cases involve a certain teenager from Hawaii.
Samsung first came up with a special exemption for Wie in 2004.
A year later, the McDonald's LPGA Championship changed its rules to allow room for "a leading amateur," the first time in its 51-year history that the field was not comprised of all professionals. And when Wie turned pro, the criteria was changed again to exempt anyone who finished in the top five at a major. Lo and behold, Wie was eligible.
Also in 2005, the LPGA tweaked its rules regarding the number of sponsor exemptions for non-members. The limit used to be six, but officials decided not to count the Women's British Open against the number so Wie could play.
So after she turned pro that fall, the Kraft Nabisco people figured it was time to update their criteria to allow Wie and Morgan Pressel, who also had turned pro, into the limited field.
The USGA didn't help when it offered Wie exemptions twice, even though she had every opportunity to qualify, just like everyone else.
Perhaps no other sport has greater respect for its rules than golf. The LPGA Tour's propensity to massage them is dangerous, especially with drug testing set to begin next year.
Message to whoever is making these decisions: Credibility is everything.