November 14, 2009

No Stopping Now

Michelle Wie's win on Sunday ended a six-year victory drought, but it also may have marked the start of a player's journey to greatness

By breaking through with her first win, Michelle Wie can expect more to follow.

By breaking through with her first win, Michelle Wie can expect more to follow.

What a long, strange trip it's been. Nearly eight years after her first LPGA tournament, six years after missing the cut by one stroke in the Sony Open on the PGA Tour as a 14-year-old and more than four years after turning pro, Michelle Wie won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational Sunday. It was Wie's first LPGA victory, first win anywhere in nearly six-and-a-half years and first victory in a stroke-play event since the Hawaii State Open on Nov. 17, 2002. The question is this: Now what? Have the floodgates opened?

Wie, who burst on the scene saying she wanted to compete against the men and play in the Masters, emerges now as a candidate to be the breakout player the LPGA needs and, just as importantly, the American star the women's game craves. The win Sunday for the 20-year-old Stanford University student came in her 65th LPGA event and 41st since turning professional on her 16th birthday in 2005. And she did it by holding off the best in the game: Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Jiyai Shin.

Playing in the final group, Wie was able to avoid any of the cringe moments that have plagued her career, moments that had many wondering if she would ever make up for the experience in junior golf she missed out on by playing against the pros at such an early age. She played the last six holes at Guadalajara Country Club without a bogey and closed with a birdie on No. 18 for a 69 and 13-under-par total. It was a seal-the-deal finish she had until now been unable to produce.

There were no pull-hooks, blocked slices or missed three-footers. The swing was as close to the graceful, fluid motion she had in 2004 that prompted her to be called "The Big Wiesy" -- an homage to the smooth motion of Ernie Els, the Big Easy -- as it has been in years.

Forgotten now is the horrible 2007 season, which began with an injury and had more tears than cheers as she played 367 LPGA holes 109 strokes over par. There were two withdrawals -- including the infamous "88-Gate" -- three missed cuts and only two rounds under par. She finshed the year a physical, technical and emotional mess. Then began the long road back.

In this year, her first as a card-carrying member of the LPGA after a successful Q school effort last December, Wie started to show flashes of the promise that accompanied her when she burst on the scene all those years ago. In any other year she would have been rookie of the year, but Jiyai Shin took care of that with three victories.

Wie's team-leading performance in the American victory at the Solhem Cup in August was viewed by many as the breakout effort she needed. And it looks now like that might very well be the case. With remarkable ball-striking ability, Wie may now finally develop the competitive confidence to close the deal -- something she had been unable to do until Sunday.

There was the squandered two-stroke lead with seven holes to play in the 2006 Evian Masters, and a three-stroke advantage standing on the 11th tee of the final round of this year's SBS Open. This time, with Creamer, Kerr and Shin applying the pressure, Wie got the job done.

Those who have criticized the path Wie has taken point out that Morgan Pressel, Yani Tseng and Inbee Park all defeated Wie in amateur match play competition and all won LPGA major championships as teenagers. Wie will not set the records many thought she would set -- youngest winner, youngest major championship winner -- but she still has an opportunity to do what really matter most: Be a great player.

There is one more LPGA event this year: the Tour Championship this week in Houston. Then the LPGA swings into the 2010 season, 60 years after the tour was formed. Given the economic climate and the number of tournaments lost this year, it could be the most important season in the history of the tour. And it could just be that Michele Wie is riding to the rescue at just the right time. Now we get to see what happens next.