Michelle Wie's inability to close out a victory Saturday at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay brought to mind a Tiger Woods anecdote from his formative years. Acknowledging that comparisons to Woods are generally unfair, this one seems instructive.
Tom Sargent, one of Southern California's most respected teaching pros and a former PGA of America Professional of the Year, was the head professional at Yorba Linda Country Club when Tiger was playing in the Yorba Linda Junior there as a 12-year-old. Entering the final round, Woods led not only his age-group division, but the older kids' division, too. The older division moved to the back tees for the final round, so Sargent asked Tiger if he'd prefer playing the final round from the back tees in an attempt to become the overall winner. Woods politely declined.
I was privileged to have known Tiger's father Earl well and to have spent countless hours with him (many spent on the golf course), and what was evident was that he was not going to allow Tiger's ambitions to get ahead of his development. Earl's philosophy was that he would allow Tiger (Earl's words here, not mine) to dip his toe into the water, then pull him back. Tiger was teased with the next level, but he was always reeled back to his comfort zone, where he learned how to win, came to expect it and hated it when he didn't.
Conversely, Wie, on the basis of early success in women's golf (she won the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at 13), was allowed to dive head first into grown-up golf to the exclusion of the development stage. The decision cost her the experience of winning and winning often enough to the point that anything less was unacceptable. She hasn't won since, incidentally.
As for the notion that Wie is a rookie and as such finishing second in her debut as an LPGA member is commendable is nonsense. This was her 48th start on the LPGA (she's had nine additional starts in PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour events). Moreover, she's already finished second or third in each of the four major championships on the LPGA. Finishing second in the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, near her home town, ought to be considered another step in the wrong direction rather than one in the right direction.
It's worthwhile to note that her contemporaries, Morgan Pressel, 20, and Paul Creamer, 22, did not play college golf, either, but that each was allowed to flourish in junior golf, and in the process learned to win (and by extension learned to hate to lose). Pressel was 18 and playing in only her 33rd LPGA event when she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major. She won 11 American Junior Golf Association events. Creamer, meanwhile, won on the LPGA in her 18th start, as an 18-year-old, only a few days after high school graduation, her first of eight LPGA victories. She, too, had won 11 times on the AJGA.
Wie's extraordinary talent eventually will allow her to win (and here's hoping she does; the benefit to the LPGA in particular and golf in general will be substantial), and when she does break through, the flood gates will probably open. In the meantime, her course is not necessarily one that talented young girls ought to follow. Talent is one thing. Winning is another.
-- John Strege