Wie like a lightning rod
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
KAPOLEI — Those waves crashing on the North Shore last week were nothing compared to what Michelle Wie can create simply by showing face.
The world's most fascinating 16-year-old professional golfer makes her 2006 LPGA debut this morning at the Fields Open in Hawai'i. The atmosphere at Ko Olina Golf Club is already electric. It has nothing to do with the recent lightning.
Before the Punahou junior tees it up, more than a few players were teed off that Wie — limited to eight LPGA appearances a year because she is not a member — was ranked third in the new Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings, introduced Tuesday. She could theoretically move into second this week ahead of Paula Creamer. Top-ranked Annika Sorenstam's huge lead is safe even though she is not here.
Some were surprised not only at the rankings, but the timing of the introduction and that the players did not have more say in its creation, according to former Rainbow Wahine Cindy Rarick. She has not seen all the ranking criteria, but believes the system might need to be tweaked.
"The rankings are definitely due since the PGA Tour has a world ranking," Rarick said. "Now we are so international I believe it's necessary and probably the right thing to do. But it might have to be re-calculated."
Wie didn't take the bad vibes personally. She told her usual standing-room only crowd in the media interview tent yesterday that she was "surprised" by her high ranking and "motivated to practice harder."
"I can't believe I was on the World Rankings," she said. "It was a cool feeling to be No. 3 in the world. I was like, 'Wow, this is great, this is awesome.' I felt so honored."
Talk of disgruntled members didn't temper her excitement.
"It's not like I invented the World Rankings," Wie went on. "It's not like I woke up one day and said, 'OK, why don't I be No. 3 in the world.' All I did was play golf."
What she has done the past two years, which is the rolling period the Rolex Rankings use, is turn down $934,000 and finish in the top 25 of all six LPGA majors she played. Half of those were top-four finishes, which qualifies her for every major this year with the exception of the U.S. Women's Open.
She has also played in 15 events, the minimum to be ranked. Morgan Pressel, the youngest LPGA member at 17, was not ranked because she has not yet met that minimum. Her appearance in the 2003 Open prevented her from qualifying as a "new player," which has different standards.
Pressel should graduate from high school, play her 15th event and receive her first ranking almost simultaneously this year. She said yesterday that an LPGA official told her if she had not played the 2003 Open she would have been ranked fifth this week.
Wie goes off the first tee today at 7:48 a.m. Rarick is right in front of her and Pressel right behind. Even that early, Wie should have a following that rivals Japanese star Ai Miyazato, who had the only serious crowd last week in the SBS Open at Turtle Bay. Ko Olina estimated the crowd for this inaugural event at 7,500 without Wie and twice that with her.
"The galleries will be leaving right as I get to the green, so it probably won't be a problem," Pressel said, giggling. "Obviously, she brings a big crowd and that's great for the tour every time she plays. I hope one day she'll play a lot more."
Wie turned pro last October but has yet to earn a paycheck. She was disqualified in her only LPGA appearance, and missed the cut at the Casio Open in Japan and Sony Open in Hawai'i, both men's events.
This week might be her best opportunity to pad the millions she is earning in endorsement money from Sony and Nike. Ko Olina is the place she practices most. She has the distance to hit short irons into Ko Olina's sloping greens — only one is flat and two have three tiers — and the course knowledge to know which tier to track.
Even the rain is playing into her hands. According to Pressel, Tuesday night's deluge transformed 40 yards of roll into 10 for yesterday's muddy Pro-Am. Director of Golf Greg Nichols expects the course to "weather" the storm well, but thinks the penetrating rain could send the 2 1/2-inch rough, which is not cut on tournament days, into a growth spurt.
"There's no question that Michelle really feels comfortable here," Nichols said. "She knows the way the ball is going to bounce. She knows yardages. When a player has played a golf course a lot the thought process is different because you can go on automatic. All the 'worry' thoughts are gone."
Maybe not "all." As Wie said, "in a tournament situation, anything can happen." Particularly when she is around. That's why she was sorely missed last week.
"It was a weird feeling to be here and not play in the tournament," Wie said. "It was kind of not so weird for me because I was on the other side of the island where I live, so I wasn't really in it. But it felt kind of sad.
"But, I'm really happy to play this week."
Reach Ann Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.