Michelle Wie waved to the gallery during her practice round yesterday in Cherry Hills Village, Colo.

Wie has won
pros’ respect

The 15-year-old Honolulu golfer
heads into this week's U.S.
Women's Open as a contender

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. » Michelle Wie is only 15 and already has a keen sense of golf history, even moments that happened 30 years before she was born.

Standing on the first tee at Cherry Hills, a 346-yard hole that plays slightly downhill, she pulled the driver from the bag and gave it a rip. With help from the mile-high air, she came up about 15 yards short of the green and into the mangled rough. It was not a smart play, and she knows that.

But the opening hole provided the most enduring moment at Cherry Hills. It was the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open when Arnold Palmer, seven shots out of the lead and motivated by talk that he had no chance to win, drove the first green and made birdie on his way to a 65 that gave him a two-shot victory over 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus.

"A lot of people have told me many times before, and it's great," Wie said yesterday. "I mean, it's really wonderful how he hit that hole with the persimmon wood. I could have never imagined hitting with a wooded head driver."

Wie just finished her sophomore year at Punahou School, and in some respects is motivated by being told what she cannot, or should not do. Some have questioned what she is doing on the LPGA Tour, that she would be better served learning how to dominate against players her own age.

Others wonder why she's playing against the men. She has missed two cuts on the PGA Tour with another opportunity coming in two weeks at the John Deere Classic.

"I think that the one characteristic that I have is .... I don't really listen to anyone, and that I believe really strongly in what I do and that I'm not really afraid of anything," she said. "I don't think, 'What if I play bad, what if I do this.' That's one of the things that helps me to overcome a lot of things."

But she is no longer just a teenage phenom at the U.S. Women's Open, someone who attracts large crowds because of her age, her slender 6-foot frame and her prodigious tee shots.

She now is a contender.

Two weeks ago, Wie was the only player to break par all four rounds at Bulle Rock north of Baltimore, finishing three shots behind Annika Sorenstam in the LPGA Championship. Then she went to Pittsburgh and was co-medalist at the U.S. Amateur Public Links qualifier, making her the first female to qualify for an adult USGA championship for men.

At Cherry Hills, she might have as good a chance as anyone to stop Sorenstam's quest for the Grand Slam when the U.S. Women's Open starts tomorrow.

"I think that Michelle Wie has proven herself," Jill McGill said. "She's what, 15 years old? She finished second a couple of weeks ago at the LPGA. I don't know how many top-10s she's had in our majors (three). She's proven that she can compete with the best women golfers in the world."

Wie missed the cut at the Sony Open on the PGA Tour in January, but she has two runner-up finishes on the LPGA Tour and would have won $292,339 -- enough to be 16th on the LPGA money list in just four tournaments.

She isn't the only teenager capable of winning.

Paula Creamer, 18, won her first LPGA Tour event a week before going through high school graduation, then nearly won again last week until Lorena Ochoa fired off five straight birdies. Morgan Pressel is 17 and a senior-to-be in high school, and has beaten Wie in the U.S. Junior Girls Amateur.

Pressel qualified for the Women's Open when she was 12 in 2001, and has easily made the cut in the two LPGA Tour events she has played. Her only beef with Wie is all the attention heaped on her, leaving other teenagers with ample talent to pick up the scraps.

Wie's hype began when PGA Tour players raved about her game at age 12, and Tom Lehman dubbed her the "Big Wiesy" because her swing reminded him so much of Ernie Els.

When Wie qualified for an LPGA event at age 12 in her native Hawaii, then won the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at 13 and shot 68 in the Sony Open a year later, her popularity soared. She played a practice round yesterday afternoon by herself, and more than 1,000 fans were in tow.

"For some reason, she is the chosen one," Cristie Kerr said. "People just want to turn on the TV and watch, and that's good for the rest of us. She's just got this aura around her that makes people want to pay attention."

Still, the attention is squarely on Sorenstam at this major championship.

She got her first look at the Cherry Hills yesterday and will speak to reporters today, but the prevailing question is not whether she can win all four majors, but if anyone can stop her?

Sorenstam won the Kraft Nabisco Championship by eight shots, then was leading by eight shots at Bulle Rock until she made meaningless bogeys down the stretch and made the margin look smaller than it was.

There might be an intimidation factor, especially with Sorenstam having won six of the eight tournaments she has played this year, although that doesn't mean her peers are waving a white flag.

Not even the pups.

"When I got to the airport, the lady that picked us up at the baggage claim area said, 'Well, it looks like Annika is going to win.' And I'm thinking, 'It's Saturday.' We still have to play," Pressel said. "I'm going to give it a shot. Anything can happen. If somebody can get hot, you never know."

U.S. Women's Open

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