Another wipeout for Wie


HONOLULU (AP) – Tom Lehman was on his way to the 12th tee when he glanced over his shoulder at the large crowd surrounding the 17th green and saw the girl he helped put on the map.

Michelle Wie is still only 17, and it was hard for Lehman to fathom how long she has been around.

They played in a junior pro-am at the Sony Open five years ago. Lehman was so impressed that he called her the “Big Wiesy” because she reminded him of Ernie Els with that easy, fluid swing and carefree demeanor. The nickname launched the hype over the Hawaii teen, and she has done enough to bring in $20 million her first year as a pro.

Lately, however, the “Big Queasy” seems to be more appropriate.

Her fourth straight time playing the Sony Open brought her worst result. She had rounds of 78-76 to miss the cut by 14 shots, the widest gap between Wie and the weekend in seven tries on the PGA Tour.

Lehman always compared her to a thoroughbred. Now, he wonders if the reins are too tight. “She’s a lot like Secretariat,” Lehman said Friday afternoon. “She has incredible talent, and you just need to let her run. Don’t teach her how to do it. You worry sometimes about her getting too much coaching, or too much handling. Just have fun. Let ‘er rip.”

Wie didn’t look like she had much fun the last two days at Waialae.

She had a bandage wrapped tightly around her right wrist from an injury three months ago at the Samsung World Championship. Wie wasn’t sure whether the injury was to her tendons or ligaments, which is strange that she wouldn’t know. And if it hasn’t healed, odds are she needs a break from golf, and perhaps should have sat out this week.

Her short game looks better than ever, especially her putting. Her long game is as bad as it has ever been.

“I have a lot of game in me, it’s just not showing now,” Wie said. “Once it comes out, it’s going to be good.”

The images of Wie are no longer the precocious 14-year-old who shot 68 and missed the cut by one shot, or the 16-year-old who was poised to qualify for the U.S. Open until her putter failed over the final nine holes at Canoe Brook.

Think back to the John Deere Classic, where she was loaded onto a stretcher after withdrawing with heat exhaustion (emphasis more on exhaustion than heat). Or when she finished last in consecutive weeks against the men in Switzerland and western Pennsylvania, a scheduling fiasco. Or failing to break 80 in Japan.

Cristie Kerr once offered the most comprehensive perspective on Wie, summarized in one statement: When you have talent like that, controversy is sure to follow.

Controversy is giving way to pity in most corners.

There was hardly a trace of anger on the practice range this week about Wie taking away a spot in the field at the Sony Open. Gone was the disgust from players who thought her dream of playing the PGA Tour was a joke. Instead, they felt sorry for her as she struggled to hit the ball straight.

Almost everyone offered the same advice – stick with women’s golf and find success, then come back and give it another shot.

“Whether it’s Michelle or anyone else, if their goal is just to come here and make a cut, I don’t think you’re here for the right reason,” Luke Donald said. “I would say, ‘Go play the LPGA Tour and feel like you’re going to win every week.’ I think she has the talent to win many times out there.”

Charles Howell III saw Wie frequently during her two weeks in Orlando, Fla., over the Christmas break when she worked with David Leadbetter. He saw an extraordinary amount of talent, a swing that doesn’t look out of place on the PGA Tour, but also a senior in high school being stretched too thin.

“I would tell her to ask herself, ‘What do you want to do?’ Then choose that and go with it,” he said.

It was no small coincidence that Tadd Fujikawa – a year younger and a foot shorter – became the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour, especially with all the attention on Wie the last four years.

She was all but forgotten when Fujikawa went birdie-par-eagle to shoot 66.

That isn’t an embarrassment as much as an illustration. Fujikawa was playing in the Sony Open for the first time, with no expectations. He was having fun, trying his hardest on every shot, feeling no nerves until cheers on the 18th made it hard for him to breathe.

Wie was like that four years ago – nothing to lose, everything to gain, a constant smile.

Now she has something to lose – her image, mainly – and not as much to gain. Given the talent and the number of times she has played against men, not as many people would be as surprised to see her make it to the weekend.

Where does she go from here?

The plan is to enroll in Stanford this fall, although one has to question how much she will develop if her parents go with her. Having freedom is part of growing up.

As far as golf, the priority is getting healthy and finding a caddie. It hasn’t been easy to find a capable looper to work a limited schedule, meaning her father was carrying the bag at Waialae.

Her 2007 schedule is not set, but there’s a good chance Wie won’t tee it up again until the Kraft Nabisco. The John Deere Classic has an open invitation to Wie, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t show up this year.

Don’t give up on her because she played poorly on the PGA Tour. The question now is whether she can still contend against the women.

AP-ES-01-13-07 1519EST