Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wieeeee's Baaaaaccckkkk!

It's going to be a long, tedious year reading about the LPGA Tour I'm afraid...

LPGA season began with a bang at the SBS Open
By Alan Shipnuck
(Commentary by Steve Czaban)

Had Michelle Wie won the LPGA's SBS Open, we were prepared to call it the greatest week in tour history. (Oh boy... here we go!) Despite being three up with eight to play, Wie couldn't seal the deal in her debut as a card-carrying tour member, so the LPGA's season opener on Oahu, in Hawaii, will have to be downgraded to merely a smashing success.

Wie didn't win, but she temporarily turned an island in the middle of the Pacific into the center of the golfing world, (Good hyperbole. Totally accurate. Yep.) and 2 1/2 rounds of near-perfect golf (is there an award for "near perfect" golf?) left no doubt that the 19-year-old will be a week-in-and-week-out force as she plays a full LPGA schedule for the first time. (You know who else is a week-in-week-out force on the LPGA Tour? Lorena Ochoa. Look her up.) The last two years of injury and controversy had turned Wie into a walking cautionary tale, but it took all of one round for her to remind everyone of her star power. Playing in stiff winds last Thursday, (What courage to even tee it up in such conditions!) she controlled her ball beautifully and had perfect pace on the greens, roaring home with three closing birdies to cap a 66 that left her a stroke off the lead and put a charge into the tournament that lasted two more days.

The immediate results were record crowds (Fact please. Record for this event? State of Hawaii? Turtle Bay record?) and breathless, practically nonstop plugs on Golf Channel, (yep, it's what they do!) and by week's end some of the more farsighted of Wie's colleagues were openly rooting for her to win, knowing what a boost it would be for women's golf.

(Insert obligatory quote from any LPGA member who will go on record with something pleasant... )

"She is going to be one of the best things that's ever happened to the LPGA tour," said veteran pro Christina Kim. "She's beautiful, she's intelligent, she's witty, but most of all, she has that kind of rare star quality where you can't take your eyes off her."

(Check... thank you.)

The only thing Wie doesn't have in abundance is the knowledge of how to close out a tournament. (Like Joseph Hazelwood only lacked an abundance of knowledge on how to get a supertanker filled with oil safely into harbor. But on the open water, the dude was a beast!) Her last victory at any level was the 2003 U.S. Women's Public Links, (G-- damn editors MADE me put that in there! Arrrggggghhhh!) and her final round at the SBS will be remembered for a messy double bogey on the 11th hole and the short birdie putt she blew on number 16 to end her bid. But Wie didn't lose the tournament (nah... course not. She's a winner people. She just doesn't um... win... yet...) so much as Angela Stanford took it away, and that, too, counts as one of last week's salient developments. Wie still led by a shot after her double, but Stanford ruthlessly birdied three holes (that fucking lucky bitch!) in a row beginning on the 13th.

(We now pause for the obligatory 1 paragraph "bone" for the actual winner of the event. Your previously scheduled Michelle Wie suck-a-thon will return in a moment..)

Despite high winds, occasional squalls and a partisan crowd rooting against her, Stanford played airtight golf over the closing holes to finish off a victory that has stamped the late-blooming 31-year-old Texan as a star in waiting. Going back to last year Stanford has now won three of her last seven starts and finished no worse than sixth in that stretch. With a palpable competitiveness and a game that betrays no weaknesses, Stanford will be a Solheim Cup terror, and if this current streak lasts much longer, she may challenge the conventional wisdom that Paula Creamer is the best American at this minute.

(And now... back to "Michelle Wie: The Obama Of Golf" already in progress..)

However compelling the on-course action was, last week featured some other macrodevelopments that bode very well for the LPGA's future. On Thursday the tour trumpeted a new deal for its Korean broadcast rights with JoongAng Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) that beginning in 2010 will nearly double the LPGA's annual take, to an estimated $4 million. (Has Carolyn Bivens considered just selling the entire tour itself, kit-and-kaboodle to Korea yet? I mean, just see what they'd pay for the whole thing!) J Golf, a division of JBC, also will become the title sponsor of next month's tournament in Phoenix, which had lost Safeway as an underwriter, and beginning in 2010 J Golf will sponsor a new tournament in the Los Angeles area. Adding events and revenue in this financial climate is both a morale booster and an economic necessity.

Of even more consequence to the LPGA was last week's announcement that under a new 10-year deal Golf Channel will serve as the tour's exclusive domestic cable home beginning in 2010. (Note: This deal is like me signing a deal to make McDonalds the "official" provider of breakfast bagels for me before work. Where else was I going to go?) For years the LPGA has knocked around TNT, ESPN and ESPN2, getting small broadcast windows and often D-list announcers, while other tournaments also play out on Golf Channel and the various networks. "We needed a home," says commissioner Carolyn Bivens. The tour will get that plus all the fixings, including Golf Channel's relentless rah-rah promotions, established announcers and spin-off programming that is just beginning to be developed. (I suggest a show featuring all of Michelle Wie's non-wins. Could be fascinating).

It is significant that all of these announcements came at the SBS Open, the first tournament of the post-Annika epoch. (Lorena who, again?) The LPGA has a bevy of intriguing players — Stanford among them — but there is no doubt who will be the tour's leading lady in the years to come. (Because we are the media, and we said so.)

"She's starting to look like the Michelle of old," Wie's instructor, David Leadbetter, said last week, failing to note the irony that he was talking about a teenager. (Also failing to note the even bigger "irony" that he had presided over the destruction of her game in the first place by aiding and abetting the idiotic attempt to play men's events) "She's swinging the club nicely, her short game is sharp, and she's gotten her power back, which is what separates her from the other players out there. Not only in how she can attack a course but also on a lot of the shots around the green that she likes to play, because putting enough spin on the ball requires a speed and strength that few women possess. But most of all, Michelle is happy to be playing golf again. There were times over the last two years when I think she dreaded coming to the course, but no more. She's fallen back in love with the game." (Her parents are complete ass-hats, but hey, they pay my bills. What do you want me to say?)

Wie's renaissance began at last fall's LPGA qualifying tournament. Having experienced two years of ragged (awful) play and a series of ugly controversies, (all self-inflicted) she had burned up loads of goodwill and the tournament invitations that had once been an entitlement were no longer forthcoming. So Wie swallowed her pride and paid the fee to enter Q school, just like all the other dreamers and wannabes. (She took it from the pile of money labelled "Sony Endorsement" which left her with only $29,996,312.16 left.) Her raw talent has never been questioned, (and remember, she's the only woman with "raw talent" okay...) but plenty in the golf cognoscenti have wondered if Wie has the commensurate amount of heart and resolve. She answered most of the doubters at Q school, the most pressure-packed tournament in the game, (aside from the five majors and the Solheim Cup, but I mean it's close) at which she played near-flawless golf (another "near flawless" effort! Amazing!) en route to earning her spot on the LPGA tour. (Note to Editors: Do I have to mention that she only finished tied for 7th? No. Good. Leave that out.) When Wie floated off the final green at LPGA International, (new superpower: actual levitation) she flashed what had to be her biggest smile in years, and at the SBS she talked about the larger meaning of her tour card.

"I think automatically you feel as if you're more ... not accepted, but you're more a part of something," Wie said. "[The other players] always have been nice to me, and they still treat me really nice and all that, but it's a different feeling, like you're part of something — part of an association, part of a legacy."

(We now interrupt this program, for a special medical report: "Michelle Wie: It Wasn't Her Fault. It Was Her Wrists". Hosted by Dr. Nick Riviera)

The triumph at Q school may have rejuvenated her spirit, but just as important has been the rebuilding of her body. Wie's recent struggles could all be traced to February 2007, when she suffered the first in a series of wrist injuries. It has taken nearly two years for her to be made whole again. (Especially since she ignored doctors advice to quit playing for a summer, because her endorsements were at risk. Ah, details..) "She's not a skinny 13-year-old anymore," says Gray Cook, an orthopedic specialist who has overseen Wie's physical therapy since July '07. "She's filled out with a really powerful lower body to complement her explosive hip turn, but she had comparatively very little upper-body strength. The delicate bones (Damn genetics! Damn you to hell!)in her wrists were suffering the brunt of (her parents?) this asymmetry."

Working with resistance bands and free weights, Wie is now 80% stronger than when she began with Cook, according to his estimate. Standing with one leg stretched behind her, Wie can now bend over and deadlift a 78-pound barbell in sets of four. (Hmm. A professional athlete lifting weights? Interesting... very interesting...) "She is very committed," says Cook. "She has that intense desire you see in athletes who are burning to be the best." (Which, by the way, nobody else on the LPGA Tour has. Just remember that..)

For Wie to get there, she will have to stop teasing with her potential and start winning tournaments, (Note to Editors: Why, oh, WHY do you make me keep inserting the fact she hasn't won anything yet? It's not relevant. Geez...) but the near miss at the SBS was hardly a lost week, as she is now well-positioned on the money list and points standings for the Solheim Cup and rookie-of-the-year races. (Can we just put her on the team now?) Following Saturday's final round Wie couldn't hide her disappointment at not winning. Still, she said, "I can take a lot of positive thoughts from this week." Ditto her new tour.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't they have waited until she played off the island before heaping all the praise on her?