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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, July 1, 2006

Course set up for Wie breakthrough

 •  Wie one shot off U.S. Women's Open lead

Advertiser Staff

Mark Rolfing, a 30-year Hawai'i resident and golf commentator for NBC and The Golf Channel, will be providing insights on the U.S. Women's Open from Newport, R.I.

The 72-hole tournament started yesterday and featured four golfers with Hawai'i ties Michelle Wie, 16, Kimberly Kim, 14, Stephanie Kono, 16, and Ayaka Kaneko, 16.

Here were Rolfing's impressions yesterday:

After all the talk about how tough the 61st U.S. Women's Open would be, Michelle Wie went out in the first round and made it look relatively simple in shooting a 1-under-par 70. When the Punahou senior finished just after 7 a.m. in Hawai'i, she shared fifth, a shot out of first at soggy Newport Country Club. That held through the end of the day.

"Michelle played beautifully today," said Mark Rolfing, who walked all 18 holes with Wie. "She made one bogey and wasn't really in danger of another aside from a long (15 feet) par putt at the third.

"I thought today was one of the best, most consistent rounds I've seen her play in a major. She looked really good to me. She's hitting the ball great, but also now her pace on the greens is really good."

Rolfing walked part of the way with David Leadbetter, Wie's coach, who also was happy with the way his prodigy played. Wie had 15 pars, birdied the fifth and final holes with short putts and bogeyed only No. 9.

She averaged 261 yards off the tee into the saturated fairways that have taken on more than 13 inches of rain the past five weeks. The first round was postponed because of dense fog.

Wie was one of only three golfers who averaged more than 260 yards. The 156-player field averaged 226, and Hawai'i's Ayaka Kaneko (228), Stephanie Kono (225.5) and Kimberly Kim (217.5) were some 40 yards behind Wie.

"That's a huge thing," said Rolfing, who has watched Wie finish top-five at her last three majors. "When I saw that, I started thinking, Michelle has a huge advantage. That's why I really think she can win. This is probably the best chance she's had to win a major that I've seen."

There is an asterisk. Rolfing watched Wie hold her left wrist while she walked up the final fairway. She told him later she just "tweaked" her forearm coming out of the rough, but that it "definitely hurts." He believes it could be an issue, though Wie told him she wasn't worried.

If Wie is right, Rolfing thinks the 16-year-old two months from her senior year at Punahou could make history tomorrow.

"I think she can win, I really do," he said. "Everything is in her favor now, I believe. The course is soft, she can carry it a long way. It's not running hard and fast so she doesn't have to worry about bad bounces. She's got this 3-wood "stinger" shot she can hit on a few holes if she needs and get it in the fairway every time. She's got really good pace on the greens. They are a perfect pace for Michelle."

Even the marathon schedule favors her, if Rolfing is right. The cut will come after today's second round, with the top 60 and ties (and anyone within 10 of the lead) advancing to the final 36 holes tomorrow.

"It's going to be a very long, long day," Rolfing acknowledges. "Wouldn't your rather be 16 than 26 or 36 or 46? I think Sunday is going to be to her benefit. If she just goes out tomorrow (Saturday) and shoots a nice round, I still think even-par wins. Then she gets to play 36 holes at her pace Sunday, not having to take any chances. To me, right now, I think she is the favorite."

Rolfing went from Wie's group to Morgan Pressel. It was like day and night. After a good start two birdies Pressel faded to a 76 with 34 putts.

As Rolfing was moving over to Pressel's group, ESPN showed Pahoa's Kimberly Kim hitting to the par-3 17th. She missed the green and when the cameras came back to her, hit it close and sank the par putt.

"They are in love with Kimberly Kim here," Rolfing said. "I think her interview yesterday made them fall in love."

Wie also has a passionate following, from the galleries and cameras. The interview Rolfing did with Wie for ESPN during Thursday's fog delay which turned into a postponement will be re-aired on NBC this weekend. He has never had that happen before.

"What I learned today," said Rolfing, who covered Wie before yesterday's broadcast came on the air, "was that in most situations people follow Michelle Wie's rounds way more than any other player whether it's ESPN, NBC or anybody else. These kinds of things, like missing putts, happen to other players, but America doesn't see it."

He will be with Wie all day today. She tees off at 7:25 a.m. Hawai'i time; NBC's broadcast start at 9 a.m. "Michelle," Rolfing said, "will be pretty much the whole NBC show."