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Swing Thoughts: Promise Meets Reality: Michelle Wie Fails in Open Bid


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By Jack Waddell via TheSandTrap.com
She's getting closer. But the 16-year-old prodigy still has some growing to do. I can't wait till she gets there.

In what is sure to go down as one of the most over-reported, over-hyped, and over-analyzed golf events of the year, Michelle Wie faltered over the back nine of her second round at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, NJ to finish five shots out of a playoff for a spot in the upcoming U.S. Open at Winged Foot.



That, of course, is the big story. But I had a chance to witness her attempt, watch some of my friends try to qualify, and came away with a different angle on the day.



michelle_wie_sectional_wide.jpg

To do what no other reporter has done so far, let me put Michelle aside for a moment (I promise I'll come back to her) and talk about some of the success stories of the day.



Touring pro Brett Quigley was the medalist at 11 under par - five shots better than last year's medalist, Michael Allen. The low scores were no doubt enabled by the soft conditions.



Last year Canoe Brook was baked hard. This year a week and a half of intermittent deluges left the course soaking wet and forced tournament officials to invoke lift, clean, and place in closely mown areas. Putting the ball in the hand of Tour-quality players is worth at least a couple shots a round.



Local knowledge and experience with Eastern parkland-style courses helped at least three of the qualifiers from the New York area. Touring pro J.J. Henry, Nationwide pro Chris Nallen, and Hooters Tour player Andrew Svoboda all grew up playing tough, tight courses in the Met area. In fact, Svoboda was a Winged Foot club champion. This was the third consecutive year Henry qualified for the Open at Canoe Brook and the second in a row for Nallen.



michelle_wie_sectional_atop.jpg
The gallery was awed by Michelle's prowess off the tee. She is PGA Tour long.



There weren't any surprises among the other 18 who qualified. Seasoned veterans like Mark Brooks, Tom Pernice, Jr., Greg Kraft, Scott Hend, and Michael Harris along with up and comers like Kevin Stadler and David Oh managed to avoid the five-way playoff for the final spot.



The quality of these players and those who just missed qualifying - players like Vaughn Taylor, Robert Damron, Brian Gay and Troy Matteson - is testimony to the enormous challenge Michelle Wie faced at Canoe Brook.



In the end, she finished tied for 55th place, good enough to make the 36-hole cut in a PGA Tour event. But more remarkable than that was that until the final nine holes, she was definitely in the hunt.



Watching her play, I was impressed. From tee to green she played quality golf. For the most part she hit shots solidly, although her irons were weaker than her drives. But the girl cannot putt. It was painful to watch.



Her swing is technically perfect, the result of natural ability and superior tutoring from the likes of David Leadbetter. But that same tutoring seems to have resulted in a very mechanical, robot-like putting stroke. Only on long putts does she release the putter and look like she's using some feel.



michelle_wie_sectional_montage_one.jpg
As disciplined as she is, there were moments when the strain was evident.



If Wie had made just half her birdie putts inside of twelve feet in the first round she would have been five under going into the second round.



Her struggles on the green are somewhat surprising given her age. I only wish I could recapture the touch and abandon I putted with when I was 16. That said, putting can be learned and Wie has proven herself an apt student.



She's never going to have the natural, flowing stroke of a Crenshaw or Mickelson, but I can see her learning to putt with the technique and focus of Tiger Woods.



Speaking of Woods, Michelle Wie is just as remarkable a talent. It was impossible to watch her play, see her poise, and watch her interact with her playing partners and the gallery and believe you were watching a 16-year-old.



I'm sure debate will continue to rage over whether her career would be better served learning to win on lesser stages before progressing up the competitive ladder ala Woods. And I'm among those who question the fairness of her exemption into men's events. However, I have no problem when she earns her way in as she did in last year's U.S. Public Links or this year's U.S. Open qualifiers.



michelle_wie_sectional_montage_two.jpg
Michelle is poised beyond her years. She is the real deal.



Michelle Wie remains a work in progress. But promise does not win, performance does. She is getting closer and closer and there is no question in my mind she's going to deliver greatness sooner rather than later. All in all, it was a terrific experience to witness her game in person. Beyond that, here are some observations on the day that may interest only me:



There was an impressive list of players whom Michelle bettered: Alex Cejka, Ricky Barnes, Len Mattiace, and James Driscoll among them.



My friend Rick Hartmann, who played with Michelle, finished three strokes behind her. You can bet some ribbing will ensue and some betting money changes hands when he returns to his club on eastern Long Island.



There was only one gate open to get into Canoe Brook and it closed around 11 a.m. when the crowd reached about 3,000. After that, they counted how many people left before letting that same number in. It was a good decision. Because there were no gallery ropes, the throng following Michelle caused delays that created an open hole and a half gap during the morning round.



michelle_wie_sectionial_crowd.jpg
With no gallery ropes, crowd control was akin to herding cats.



Wie was shadowed by a private security guard decked out in golf attire, an embroidered badge on his shirt and a sidearm at his waist.



Michelle's parents were in the gallery and it was fun to watch them react to the good shots and bad. At the same time, they chose to remain very unobtrusive. Pretty classy, I thought.



Mark O'Meara, taking advantage of this being a non-Tour event, played in shorts. A 47-year-old in shorts is complete validation of the PGA Tour's pants-only policy. At least I think so.



The turn out and media coverage for an Open qualifier that last year drew a couple hundred people, if that many, tells me that Michelle is earning every penny she makes from Nike and Sony.



Watching Scott Hend (who qualified) hit a tee shot, my good friend Marty Strumpf, a PGA teaching pro, remarked, "That was just a perfect swing and perfect contact. Unbelievable." He was just blown away… and it was a great shot. But it was really just one of many by many players. It's just astounding the quality of play at the highest levels. Tee to green there is almost total parity. Managing the imperfect - and putting - is the difference.



michelle_wie_sectional_drive.jpg
I can't imagine her long game getting better, but if it does, and if she learns to putt, she may one day win a major.



A couple of other players I know did well. Bill Britton, a former PGA Tour winner, finished at one over. Like Michelle, too many putts simply failed to fall. Greg Baker, head pro at the Rockaway River Country Club here in Jersey aced the fourth hole on the South Course.



Canoe Brook was pretty much a media circus. Almost 10 percent of the crowd was media. All the top golf writers were there: Damon Hack and Dave Anderson from the New York Times, Tim Rosaforte from Golf World and, of course, the usual suspects from local TV sports and The Golf Channel. I happened to check in as media the same time as Michael Bamberger from Sports Illustrated - the same Michael Bamberger who blew the whistle on Michelle over that "illegal" drop last year that disqualified her in her first professional event. He must have been disappointed not to be so personally involved in this contest.



The Met Open will be played at Canoe Brook August 22-24. A 54-hole event, it is the biggest regional tournament in the New York environs. If you're in the area, stop in and have a look. I guarantee you won't have to fight for a vantage point with 3,000 others.



Photo Credits: © AP.

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