SILVIS, Ill. (AP) – Sorry defending champion Mark Hensby, Nick Price, David Toms and everyone else here, it’s not about you this week.

The star of the John Deere Classic has a ponytail, dangly earrings and a monster game. Michelle Wie may only be 15 and a visitor on the PGA Tour, but she’s already got major player status, right down to the Tiger-esque gallery following her for Wednesday’s pro-am.

“Michelle Wie is the story this week, and that’s fine,” said Hensby, who got his first career victory here last year. “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 should be.

“It actually helps me this week,” Hensby added. “I don’t have to do as much as someone would probably normally have to do.”

Wie’s presence at the Deere Classic isn’t causing anywhere near the frenzy Annika Sorenstam created when she became the first woman to play on the PGA Tour in 58 years at the 2003 Colonial.

Sorenstam was openly criticized by some players, and millions of fans the world over watched closely to see how she’d fare.

But attitudes have softened over the last two years. Since then, Suzy Whaley has played the Greater Hartford Open, and Wie played the Sony Open the last two years.

None made the cut, though Wie did come within a stroke at the 2004 Sony Open.

Even some of the players who were critical of Sorenstam have come around with Wie.

“We’ve seen this trend now, and my hat’s off to her,” said Price, who said in 2003 that Sorenstam’s appearance at the Colonial “reeks of publicity.”

“If she wants to try and play out here, then she’s welcome to,” Price said. “The PGA Tour, one of the greatest things is if you’ve got clubs in the bag and you can play, you can get out here.”

Toms, who likened Sorenstam’s appearance at the Colonial to “a featherweight going against a heavyweight,” said playing with the men could help Wie’s game. “It’s a good opportunity for her,” Toms said. “She’s going to learn a lot from this week every time that she plays against us. It’ll probably help her career.”

And there’s no denying that Wie helps this tournament.

Because the Deere Classic falls the week before a major – and one overseas, at that – most of the top players are nowhere to be seen. Toms is the only one in the field currently ranked in the top 10, and Price is probably the most-recognizable name here.

By having Wie, though, the tournament’s profile automatically rises.

“She’ll add a buzz to this tournament that otherwise wouldn’t be here,” Toms said.

When she teed off at 7:36 a.m. Wednesday morning as part of Shigeki Maruyama’s group, there were already about 75 people watching. The gallery grew with every hole, and by the time she made the turn, there were several hundred people following her.

Compare that to the handful of people watching Jeff Maggert in the group ahead of Wie. Or 2001 British Open champion David Duval in the group behind her. And, no offense to Maruyama, but the crowd wasn’t there to see him. Fans oohed and aahed over every shot Wie hit, and there were more than a few men who said they couldn’t get close to one of her drives. When she came close to holing a chip shot from 100 yards out on the par-5 17th, there were whistles of admiration.

After her round, fans lined up three- and four-deep to get her autograph, and Wie signed for about five minutes before security led her into the clubhouse.

“I’m very impressed,” said Julie McManus, who drove an hour with her 13-year-old daughter Hannah and 9-year-old son Dalton, to watch Wie. “She’s 15 years old, and she’s a good inspiration for Hannah.”

Wie, who didn’t talk after her round Wednesday, has made it clear that this is no publicity stunt, and that playing on the men’s tour is a long-term goal of hers. She plays in the men’s U.S. Amateur Public Links next week at Shaker Run in Lebanon, Ohio.

By playing with the men now, she gets a firsthand look at where and how she needs to improve. When she and Maruyama had to wait on the tee, they could be seen comparing notes or talking about swings.

“I’m very privileged to be able to play here,” Wie said Tuesday. “People pay a lot of money to play in pro-ams, and I feel so lucky to be able to play with them for free.”

Not to worry. The tournament is getting its money’s worth from her, too.

“It’s obviously good for the tournament. There’s a reason that she’s here,” Toms said. “Every tournament wants to do what’s best for that tournament, have the strongest field they can possibly have, the notoriety that they can have.

“I don’t have any problem with it whatsoever, and I wish her well.”

AP-ES-07-06-05 1740EDT

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