SUMMIT, N.J. -- You could almost have pictured her at the U.S. Open, could almost have imagined Michelle Wie playing a tournament whose name evokes images of champions such as Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods. A tournament that, up until now, has been all about men.

Wie, who recently completed her junior year of high school, was in contention deep into yesterday's play to become the first woman - perhaps better to say first "female" because she is only 16 years old - to qualify for the men's Open.

But Wie faltered at the end. The missed putts that had earlier cost her birdies began to cost her pars. Three consecutive bogeys toward the end of the second round left her out of the mix at the end of a 36-hole, 11-hour session at Canoe Brook Country Club that continued a long-standing debate about women playing in men's events.

Wie followed an opening-round, 2-under-par 68 with a 3-over 75 on the tougher North Course. She finished tied for 59th in a field composed of Wie and 152 men - not good enough to snag one of 18 qualifying spots from here for the Open, beginning June 15 at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

She heads next to Bulle Rock golf course in Havre de Grace for the LPGA Championship, which begins Thursday. After playing 36 holes in one day yesterday, she joked that playing 18 in a day in Maryland "is going to be a breeze."

Could there be moral victory yesterday in falling short of so lofty a goal?

Wie paused a long time when asked whether she was satisfied or disappointed with the result. "Obviously, you know I'm disappointed I didn't make it. But I'm just - I guess I'm satisfied with the way I tried."

She said she planned to try to qualify again next year.

Qualifying events are usually low-key affairs, but Wie's participation made this one anything but. She was trailed by adoring galleries that began in the hundreds and later swelled to a few thousand. PGA Tour pros Mark O'Meara, J.J. Henry and Billy Andrade met with comparatively meager crowds. The club closed the gates after reaching capacity of between 3,000 and 4,000 spectators.

More than 200 media members had credentials to cover the event. Organizers said that last year, without Wie, there were fewer than 10.

As an all-eyes-on-one-person spectacle, it rivaled Michael Jordan's early days with the Chicago Bulls or Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing.

Some longtime golf fans were dumbstruck at seeing members of Wie's overflow galleries crossing fairways or backing dangerously close to other golfers at adjacent holes.

"It's scary, because they're letting the people walk on the fairways and it's not roped off," said Barry Wolfensohn, a salesman from Florham Park, N.J. He said he felt bad about the distractions endured by Wie's playing partners - Rick Hartmann, a club pro from Long Island, N.Y., and David Gossett, who won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1999.

Said Hartmann, who also failed to qualify: "Obviously it's harder. If everything is roped off, it does help a bit." But Hartmann added that the hoopla is good training for big events such as the Open.

Others said Wie's presence was energizing. "It was electric when she chipped in on 18 [for a first-round birdie]," said PGA Tour player Brett Quigley, who qualified after shooting a course-record 63 in yesterday's second round. "Six holes over we all heard it, and we knew it was Michelle."

Some golf commentators have criticized a system that allows Wie to receive sponsors' exemptions in other events that would otherwise go to men. She made the cut for the first time in a men's tournament at the SK Telecom Open in South Korea last month.

Yesterday though, Wie was trying to play her way in. And most here were rooting for her.

"You could be watching history in the making," said fan Chris Alderucci, who traveled from Washington so he could walk all 36 holes with Wie.

Wie's father, B.J., said his daughter had proved yesterday that it's possible for a woman to play in a men's major. "I think finally my dad said something right," Wie said with a smile.

Wie had stayed in contention for much of the day. After a birdie on her 26th hole, she was 2-under, which placed her near a qualifying spot but meant she needed to play better than par to qualify. She said neither pressure nor fatigue contributed to the bogeys that followed. "I guess it wasn't really meant to be," she said.

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