Lewine Mair looks at the glamour girl who is recovering from past misdemeanours to be a feared player once more
A Wie bit of trepidation
The other LPGA players at this week's Ricoh Women's British Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes would almost certainly prefer it if Michelle Wie did not create too much of a stir. The explanation here is that they would hate to go back to what they perceive to be the bad old days when Wie's golfing feats loomed larger than anything else on the distaff side of the game.
Few will forget how Wie, at 14, had a second-round 68 to finish only one shot away from making the cut in the men's Sony Open in Hawaii. The LPGA professionals endeavoured to make all the right noises at the time but it did not take too long for them to realise that Wie's ongoing activities in the men's game were bad for their business. As Wie dominated the headlines, so the tour's tournaments were steadfastly ignored by press and TV alike. Wie, inadvertently, exacerbated the problem when she said that her long-term ambition was to play among the men.
In the eyes of the women, that smacked of disrespect. Wie, they declared, was sending out the message that the LPGA Tour was second best. Yet, if the LPGA members would have their concerns about a resurgent Wie, the same does not apply to the public. They long to see the now 19-year-old Wie, a relatively lowly 12th on the money-list, back in full cry. Though the British crowds would opt for a home-grown winner in Laura Davies or a Melissa Reid by way of a first choice, they would see Wie as a magnificent alternative.
Wie "fever" first took hold in the UK during the 2004 Curtis Cup match at Formby in which the then 14-year-old schoolgirl played on the winning American team. Normally, the Curtis Cup goes pretty much under the radar but on this occasion the crowds streamed through the gates. After all, it was only four months earlier that Wie had created Tiger-type waves with her performance in the aforementioned Sony Open.
The magic continued through Wie's amateur days and, by the time she switched to the professional ranks, she had notched four top-10 finishes in the women's majors. There have been two more top fives since she turned pro but, from the moment she started playing for pay in Oct 2005, she has been dogged and diverted by controversy. At her first professional tournament in Desert Springs, the 2005 Samsung World Championship, a journalist trailed her all the way and took careful note as she made what he believed to be an incorrect drop.
Had he reported it there and then, Wie would have been given a couple of penalty shots which she might well have survived. Instead, he reported it the following day, just before she handed in the card which would have seen her finish in a commendable share of fourth place. The penalty at that point? Disqualification. There was a day in the 2006 Women's British Open when Wie hit a bit of moss on her backswing in a bunker - she thought there was nothing wrong in that she was in mid swing - and received a two stroke penalty to have her level par 72 turning into a 74.
And another in the States - at the State Farm Classic of 2008 - when she was just few steps too far from the scorer's hut before she remembered that she had forgotten to sign her card. Disqualification again - and this at a point when she would otherwise have been just one shot off the lead. On top of all that, there have been injury problems. Two winters ago, she injured one wrist and then hurt the other as she fell and tried to save the original.
Her coach, David Leadbetter, was desperate that she should follow the medical men's pleas that she should allow the wrists fully to recover before she returned to her usual practice regime. Instead, she came back too soon. "We were a bit naive," owned Byung-wook, Wie's father. No one would deny that Wie's career as a professional has so far been disappointing. However, those who look at her life from a more positive angle will see that the player is not wrong in feeling pretty proud of her past rather than the reverse.
Though she would not want to upset her sister professionals by shouting as much from the roof tops, she says of herself: "I was pretty gutsy? I took the unconventional route and did stuff which others didn't." Wie made the proverbial fortune when she turned professional, with a couple of weeks in Japan, where she made the cut in a men's Asian Tour event, having in themselves earned her some US$5 million (Dh18m). Again, she is even now fulfilling her long-held ambitions on the educational front.
It was always her aim to go to Stanford and today she is nearing the halfway point in what she hopes will be a qualification in Asian - American studies. She attends college for two semesters out of every three, an arrangement which leaves her free to play the LPGA tour from April until August. In her last set of exams, she had nothing other than As and Bs. From a golfing point of view, nothing will mean more to the many Wie fans than that she is still in love with the game.
Unlike the home-grown Koreans and Asian players who practise all hours of the day and night, she long ago decided that endless practise is probably not the answer. "Sometimes," she says, "it's more a matter of keeping the pot boiling. What works best for me is to go out with a purpose and to get the job done." Those LPGA players who would be wary of a Wie win at Lytham would do well to look at the bigger picture. At a time when the 2010 tournaments are looking a little thin on the ground, the publicity Wie can generate would do more than anything else to keep the more shaky sponsors on board.