Golf

Is Wie ready to finally break through?

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.

Here's what I'm learning to appreciate about Michelle Wie: there's a bigger picture, and it extends well beyond LPGA majors and the PGA Tour.
Wie comes to this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship with two LPGA tournaments in the books. After that close call in Hawaii, she went back to Stanford to finish out the winter quarter, then shook the rust off in Phoenix last week, tying for 57th. This marks the first time Wie will play an LPGA major as a card-carrying tour member. Her path to this point has been extraordinary. The highs have been incredible. The lows have been massively disappointing. We've questioned and dissected nearly every move the 19-year-old has made. Most of the commentary is based on observation rather than first-hand knowledge because, well, the Wies don't talk much. But a recent conversation with swing coach David Leadbetter helped shed light on a few of Wie's decisions, most notably why she's been studying nanotechnology these last few months in addition to swing tape. "People have to understand there's a bigger picture than her being a great golfer," Leadbetter said. "She wants to do more than just be a golfer. That's her MO. People have to respect that." Leadbetter went on to say that Wie often talks about wanting to do philanthropic work in her post-golf life, becoming "a global person." She has said she won't play golf past the age of 30.
"She's a very smart girl," Leadbetter said. "She has always said she wants to use golf as a means to an end." The Stanford degree is important for a well-rounded life after golf. And, let's face it, online college courses at age 40 don't come close to life as a teen in a dorm. Her freedom is limited, that much is obvious. Stanford gives Wie a much-needed release. Classmates followed her last week in Phoenix with homemade shirts that said "M Dubs." She does have a life outside of golf, and not every woman on this tour can say the same. "I got A's and B's," Wie said of her latest report card. "I took a writing class on neuroscience and sound, and I took like an introductory class on arts and ideas and looking at performances, so really different types of classes." Originally, I wasn't a fan of Wie's decision to go to Stanford. It seemed like a colossal distraction for a girl with endless talent. But now I'm starting to see why it works. She needs that distraction. What's more, she can win this week despite it. "I can't play golf 24/7," Wie told Golfweek earlier this year. "On my time off I like switching back to normal mode, being my normal self doing normal things."
Wie's love affair with Mission Hills began at an early age. In 2003 she tied for ninth here as a 13-year-old, making her the youngest player to make the cut at the Kraft Nabisco. She followed that up with a fourth-place finish in '04, a T-14 in '05 and T-3 in 2006. Wrist injuries kept her from playing the last two years, and Wie couldn't even watch the action on TV she missed it so much. Wie has never played poorly on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course. She gets a thrill walking down the 18th, listening to the roar from the grandstands. When she and caddie Tim Vickers mapped the 18th green this week, Wie suggested they map out the water as well to see which part is the deepest. She's over 6-feet tall, after all, and Poppie's Pond is only 5 1/2 feet deep at the center. "I hopefully want it to be a graceful jump, but it'll probably turn out to be a really ugly one, unfortunately," Wie said. "But I don't really care as long as I get to." Wie wasn't as sharp in Phoenix as she was last month in Hawaii, but she has spent the last several days working hard with Leadbetter, and the good memories alone should help her navigate this course with relative ease. She last played Mission Hills in September at the first stage of LPGA Q-School. No grandstands, no leaderboards, no prize money. Just a whole lot of pressure and desert heat. She sailed through, and took her first step toward finding a home on the LPGA. It's unlikely that she will overstay her welcome. "She's not going to be a golfer on the tour in her 40's, that's for sure," Leadbetter said. The renowned swing coach has worked with enough top-shelf players to know Wie's passion for the game is not unmatched. She loves golf. But there's room in her heart for much more.

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