Michelle Wie hit out of a bunker on the par-5 second hole, which she birdied yesterday on her way to a 1-under 70.

The Tigress returns

Honolulu’s Michelle Wie holds her
own on the tournament’s first day,
grinding out a 1-under 70

SILVIS, Ill. » The old Michelle Wie, the tigress, returned yesterday.

This was the young girl afraid of nothing on a golf course who broke par at the first round of the John Deere Classic, outplaying male professionals two weeks after faltering among other teenage girls.

The old Michelle Wie. Yes, a contradiction in terms, but an apt description of a 15-year-old who is quickly becoming battle-hardened and just a tad more grizzled than your typical fresh-faced young lady with jangling earrings and a learner's permit.

"I've gotten a lot older and a lot more mature. I have a lot more experience. I know what to expect," she said at yesterday's post-round news conference. Technically, Wie was answering a question about her mental game compared to a year or two ago. But the words also applied to two weeks ago, when the wheels fell off in the final round of the women's U.S. Open -- a championship that was there for her to grab. Instead, she imploded and the questions about overhype arose once again. Why should she play with men when she couldn't -- and wouldn't -- beat girls?

She didn't really need to say anything, though, after she answered yesterday with a 1-under 70 that had its spectacular moments, but overall, was more about grinding; the kind of labor professional golfers perform to avoid knocking themselves out of a tournament on the first day.

It's about spending 10 minutes trying to help find a playing partner's lost ball, because your group has been put on the clock for slow play and all three of you get a 2-stroke penalty if you don't speed up ... all the while, thinking about your ball, the one sitting 12-feet from the hole, waiting for you, the one that gets you a birdie and back to even if you sink it.

Michelle Wie and playing partner Nick Watney shared a laugh as they walked off the 18th green after yesterday's first round.

When Wie finally returned to the 11th green, she made the putt with all the difficulty an electrician might have if he were interrupted while changing a light bulb.

But this was not the shot that showed those who didn't know she was born to play golf -- anytime, anywhere, with anyone.

It was on the ninth hole.

Except for a brief flirtation with the red numbers when she birdied the par-5 second, most of the front nine was a struggle for Wie. It seemingly would end at any time with a double or triple bogey, signaling the beginning of a two-day death march, rather than a hunt for history as the first female to make a men's tour cut in 60 years.

She was cannon fodder at the 485-yard par-4 nicknamed The Howitzer. After her tee shot, Wie's lie was worse than sleeping on a sidewalk. Her ball was 199 yards from the pin, in the rough, with trees between her and the green.

What happened next was magic. You didn't have to see it (Wie didn't). All you had to do was hear the crowd.

Old Michelle said it was a shot she'd made when she was just a kid.

"I had no view of the hole, and it could have been a bogey or worse. I haven't played that big slice in a long time. It has been like at least a year since I played that shot. That was like the pivotal point. ... I really trusted in myself and it felt great. It was really good."

This is the old Michelle -- the one who gets a taste and it just makes her hungrier.

"I feel like I was kind of disappointed on that (par-5 17th) hole," Wie said. "I felt like I should have made an eagle there."

Michelle Wie was all smiles as she walked up to the green on the second hole yesterday.

The birdie was good enough for the gallery. At this juncture -- a good viewing point for several holes -- Wie's followers joined with campers to form a group estimated at 5,000. They rocked four cities and two states with their roar when she stuck her second shot within 12 feet of the pin after an arrow-straight 302-yard drive.

On Tuesday, Wie blamed her U.S. Open collapse on "bad luck."

Misfortunes yesterday were labeled "stupid."

In two days, she went from bitter and tentative to accountable and competent.

"The front nine, I was just a little bit shaky and made a lot of stupid bogeys," she said. "But I'm very proud of myself for getting back on track. The back nine was pretty solid, and I feel like I'll see some good scores from now on."

How long "from now on" is at this tournament was the burning question yesterday.

If the field had been winnowed yesterday, Wie, tied for 73rd, would be out.

But Wie made the cut yesterday. The one in her own mind. She didn't go into today looking to be one of the top 70.

"I'm not really thinking about the cut. I'm only five shots behind (seven when everyone finished), and if I put up three crazy rounds, who knows?"

And the crowd? Make you nervous?

"The more people who come, the better."

The tigress was back, at least for a day.

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