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Up close, without a golf club in her hand, Michelle Wie appears every bit a 13-year-old still a couple weeks removed from entering the ninth grade.
Cute, not glamorous. Polite, not polished. A bit reserved around strangers. Mostly “yeahs” and giggles, no deep thoughts.
Then she grabs a golf club. Then everything changes.
The world's most famous junior golfer - and doesn't that sound silly when you consider those 285-yard drives, a last-group pairing in the final round of an LPGA major, and her ongoing Summer Tour Spectacular - was at Highland Meadows Golf Club yesterday, preparing for another date with the pros in this week's Jamie Farr Kroger Classic.
Early last year, PGA Tour player Tim Herron didn't learn until just before tee time that a 12-year-old local girl was in his pro-am group at the Sony Open in Hawaii. That was when Tom Lehman walked by with a simple scouting report. “Game-up and play hard,” Lehman said.
“Good thing I did,” Herron said later. “She almost beat me.”
The legend of Michelle Wie has been growing since she shot a 64 at the age of 10, the same year she qualified for her first USGA championship, the U.S. Amateur Public Links.
Annika Sorenstam, the LPGA's top player, got a look at Wie this spring at the Nabisco Championship, the tour's first major of the year.
“When you see her play, you don't think she's 13,” said Sorenstam. “She has a very good swing and she makes the most out of it. She's got all the tools, that's for sure. She could be the one.”
Sorenstam took up the game at the age of 12 and her first recorded handicap was a 54. She remembers the thrill she felt the first time she broke 100. Reportedly, Michelle Wie has never shot in the 100s.
Far from it, at least earlier this year at the Nabisco, when Wie fired a third-round 66 to play her way into the final group on the weekend. She ended up tied for ninth, but certainly opened some eyes along the way.
“I had never seen anybody hit it that far,” said LPGA veteran Leta Lindley, who was paired with Wie during the latter's round of 66. “She had wedges into par 4s that I was hitting woods into.”
Lindley is among the tour's more diminutive players at 5-4. Wie is already 6-feet tall, having grown about three inches a year since turning 10.
“If you didn't see who was swinging and you saw the ball take off, you'd think a man hit it,” LPGA Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lopez said after watching Wie at the Chick-fil-A Championship near Atlanta.
The Farr Classic is the third of five LPGA tournaments from which Wie accepted sponsor's exemptions this year. Yet to come are two men's events on the Nationwide and Canadian tours. Mixed in was Wie's so-called USGA Grand Slam.
She won the U.S. Women's Public Links championship in June, and then played in the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S Girls Junior and last weekend's U.S. Women's Amateur, where she was upset in the first round of match play.
“I wasn't that heartbroken,” she said yesterday, “considering I'd shot a 67 the day before [for a 2-under 140 total in 36 holes of medal play qualifying]. It's been a fun summer so far. I've enjoyed the atmosphere at tournaments and getting to know players and different courses. I've been able to meet new people and make new friends.”
At age 13, though, she is still closest to Team Wie - father B.J., mother Bo and swing coach Gary Gilchrist. They were at her side, as usual, throughout the day yesterday as Michelle spent considerable time on Highland Meadows' two ranges, working mostly on her short game, and the practice putting green.
“That's what I'm really concentrating on,” she said of her putting. “I'm kind of weak at that.”
There's nothing weak about her game off the tee. At the Nabisco Championship, the muscled teen averaged a tournament-best 286.2 yards. She can pump it up past 300 yards almost at will, but will have to be more consistent on and around the greens to make a mark this week at the Meadows.
It is her power and length that wows the fans and a smooth, natural, almost effortless swing - so much like that of Ernie Els that Lehman nicknamed her The Big Wiesy - that has experts predicting greatness.
She does not come to a tournament like the Farr simply hoping to play well and eager to gain experience.
“I want to win,” she said yesterday.
Her aspirations are not modest. Wie wants to be the first to play on both the LPGA and PGA Tours. Competing in the Masters is high on her list.
Although she has been on a dizzying travel and playing schedule this summer, Michelle actually is in no hurry. She has four years of high school and then would be interested in attending Stanford University. If she were to go the distance, it could be as many as eight years before she brings her talents to the pro circuit.
Only time will tell if she arrives with a Tiger-like impact or as just another athlete who peaked with size and talent at a young age only to be caught by peers.
Until then, Wie will continue to drift between childhood and an adult-sized talent. She and her Korean-born parents, both exceptional golfers at one time, will continue walking that narrow tightrope that sways between the development of her gift and her ability to be a normal teenager.
“I guess if you grow up normal, you'll only be normal,” she said earlier this year in a rather insightful moment. “I don't want to be normal. I want to be something else.”