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Acceptance of Wie no gimme

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michelle Wie has spent much of her life in some sort of spotlight, whether it meant being the only girl on her youth baseball team back home in Hawaii or being the only female in the field last year at a PGA Tour event - and nearly making the cut.

"I always wanted to do un-normal things," the 15-year-old Wie said earlier this year.

This week, she will find herself in a familiar place as the first amateur to play in the history of the McDonald's LPGA Championship, which began in 1955.

Wie, who began playing in professional tournaments when she was 12 and has now played in 20 events on the LPGA Tour, is in some ways already the biggest attraction in women's golf. Though not yet an LPGA member, she has certainly changed the way the organization conducts business.

Two years ago, the LPGA increased the number of sponsor's exemptions a player could receive from four to six. Other players quietly called it "The Wie Rule." That is now referred to in plural, given what transpired with what had been a pros-only event.

The invitation to play in the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock came in January after it was announced last summer that the tournament would move from its longtime home in Wilmington, Del., to the 7-year-old course in Havre de Grace. According to several LPGA players, part of the deal included bringing Wie.

"McDonald's said this is what we want and, if you don't do it, then we're pulling out," said two-time LPGA champion Juli Inkster. "Last year, we said no and this year they strong-armed it a little more. It's just the principle. You just can't be changing rules for one person, regardless of who it is."

Though LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said that the rules were changed to invite "a leading amateur," as well as five other non-LPGA members from a number of foreign tours, it has left many questioning the decision to alter the eligibility criteria.

"I'm all up for Michelle. She's more than what everyone talks about," said Grace Park, one of the tour's emerging stars. "But this is an LPGA Championship, not a Nabisco Championship, not the U.S. Open Championship. It's the LPGA Championship, for only LPGA players."

The LPGA players are not the only ones who seemed a bit perturbed by Wie's invitation.

"It depends on what you define as an amateur," said Herb Krickstein, whose 16-year-old granddaughter, Morgan Pressel, has a better amateur record than Wie. "Her entry was based on professional tournaments where she was the only amateur to get exemptions."

Frank Quinn, who serves with Herb Lotman as the tournament's co-chairmen, said there were no ultimatums from McDonald's to the LPGA to invite Wie.

"It was never that strong," Quinn said. "We did want her. When you look at the compromise that's been worked out, the amateur they want, the best person from the Japanese tour, the best person from the European tour, and so on, I think it's made us a much better tournament than we were before."

Not that Wie is without support among the LPGA's rank-and-file. There are some, such as former two-time LPGA champion Laura Davies of England, who are happy that Wie will be coming to Maryland. Never shy to share an opinion, Davies questions those who think Wie shouldn't have been invited.

"My opinion is that anyone who doesn't think she should get an invite is crackers," Davies said. "She's great for the tour, and anyone who says she doesn't like it is very shortsighted. She's exciting, and we need excitement."

Wie was also given sponsor's exemptions to this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she finished tied for 14th after finishing in fourth last year, as well as to the Weetabix Women's British Open and Evian Masters in France next month. Wie also qualified for the U.S. Women's Open later this month at Cherry Hills outside Denver by finishing tied for 13th last year.

Matter-of-fact reaction

Asked earlier this year whether she was surprised to be invited to play in the LPGA Championship, Wie sounded more like a teenager talking about being asked to the prom than a player who has finished half of her 20 LPGA appearances in the Top 20, including nine of her past 10.

"Well, you know, I wasn't really that surprised," she said. "I mean, I guess I was surprised in a little way ... but given the fact that it's sponsored by McDonald's and it is a sponsored event, I mean, you know, I wasn't really that surprised."

Nor was hardly anyone else. Ever since she started showing up at LPGA events - a tall, skinny pre-teen trailed by her father, B.J., and mother, Bo, at a tournament in Honolulu three years ago - Wie has been attracting crowds and drawing comparisons to her golfing hero, Tiger Woods.

The LPGA is not the only golf organization capitalizing on Wie's celebrity.

After being invited the past two years to the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Hawaii, where she missed the cut by one stroke last year and by seven this year, Wie was given a sponsor's exemption to next month's John Deere Classic.

Wie could be the biggest attraction in an event that will send its top finisher not already exempt to St. Andrews for this year's British Open.

That doesn't sit well with Mark Hensby, the defending champion of the John Deere Classic.

"I don't think a 15-year-old girl who's done nothing at all should get a sponsor's exemption to a PGA Tour event," Hensby said earlier this year. "But I don't blame the John Deere Classic or Michelle. I blame her parents and the people running her affairs. Michelle should be playing against girls her own age."

Teacher's support

David Leadbetter, the world-renowned swing teacher who has worked with Wie for the past three years, believes she is taking the right approach by playing in mostly professional events.

"She'd be making a very nice living on the LPGA Tour if she was professional," Leadbetter said. "She really gets motivated playing in these big events. She's got more natural talent than most of the girls out there [on the LPGA Tour]."

Wie's parents rarely talk about their daughter these days, and her father, who is a professor at the University of Hawaii, declined to be interviewed for this article. It has left their only child to create her own image.

"Aside from golf, I'm your pretty average teenager," said Wie, who attends a private school in Honolulu. "I love to shop, very generic, and you know I go to school. I love clothes. I love buying stuff."

Though the LPGA players have come to like Wie and almost seem in awe of her talents, there is a quiet resentment at the preferential treatment she receives when she plays in LPGA events.

Wie seems oblivious to whatever jealousy lurks.

"It's actually really fun out here," she said. "The players are looking at me more as a competitor, not as like an amateur."

Many on the LPGA Tour wonder whether Wie is on the best career path. Her decision to play in pro tournaments, a couple of national amateur events and not compete on the junior level has left her winless since the 2003 Women's Amateur Public Links.

Some also question how excited she will be once she turns pro, and how long a career she will have.

Concerns on emphasis

"I worry if she has the opportunity to be the normal 15-year-old," said Kelli Kuehne, who was something of a prodigy herself and has won once in seven years on tour.

Inkster, the mother of two girls, including a 15-year-old, doesn't want to sound as if she is second-guessing what Wie and her parents are doing.

"If it was my daughter, would I do it differently? Yeah," Inkster said. "If it was your daughter, you'd probably do it differently. But she's not our daughter. They're doing what they think is best. She's a great player. I just hope that in 10 years from now, she doesn't want a do-over."

Once she turns pro - which could come next week, next year or maybe in five years - Wie will likely sign the biggest endorsement contract ever given a female player. Nike already sends representatives to watch her play, and other companies are waiting to make Wie their spokeswoman.

There have been whispers that if she wins a professional event, such as this week's $1.8 million tournament, she will turn pro. Even if she doesn't win, she could petition Votaw or his successor to get on tour, and those familiar with the process believe she would be approved.

"Petitioning isn't really on my mind, I still definitely want to go to college," Wie said in March.

Australian Karrie Webb, who has been the No. 1 player in the world, is hoping Wie doesn't become jaded, or just plain burned out.

"In 10 years, I just wonder if it's going to be exciting to be out playing professional golf," Webb said. "If Michelle gets out here, and isn't an Annika [Sorenstam] in terms of success, then I think people would start asking questions. At the age she's at, she's playing unbelievably well. She's exciting, she's a story and people are out here to watch. That helps the LPGA."

Rosie Jones, who earlier this year announced that this is her last season on tour, has expressed similar concerns.

"Is she going to do more for the sport when she's 15, or is she going to do more when she's 25?" said Jones, now 45. "It's not what she can do, but what she really enjoys. Let's hope that at 25 she still really enjoys it."

Tournament facts

What: McDonald's LPGA Championship

Where: Bulle Rock Golf Course, Havre de Grace

When: Thursday to next Sunday

TV: Thursday and Friday, The Golf Channel, 4 p.m.; Saturday and next Sunday, chs. 13, 9

Par: 36-36--72

Yardage: 6,486

Purse: $1.8 million

Information: 410-939-2379

Tickets: Available at gate. Tomorrow and Tuesday pro-am, $15; Wednesday practice, $15; Thursday and Friday: $18; Saturday and Sunday $20. Thursday is free for people 50 and older. Saturday is free for people with a military ID.

Parking: Free at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, with free shuttle bus to the course

Wie's LPGA highlights2002

Events: 3. Made cut: 0. Notable: At age 12, shot 83 in Monday qualifying to make field for Takefuji Classic, becoming the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event.

2003

Events: 7. Made cut: 6. Notable: Finished ninth in Kraft Nabisco Championship (even-par 288). ... Tied for 28th in Safeway Classic (2-under 214).

2004

Events: 7. Made cut: 7. Notable: Finished fourth in Kraft Nabisco Championship (7-under 281). ... Tied for sixth in Wendy's Championship for Children (6-under 282).2005

Events: 3. Made cut: 3. Notable: Tied for second in SBS Open at Turtle Bay (6-under 210).

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