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Under pressure

Wie's poor play likely caused by weighty expectations

Posted: Thursday January 12, 2006 11:37PM; Updated: Friday January 13, 2006 10:02PM
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Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie's 79 tied her highest score playing against men, which came in the Bay Mills Open on the Canadian tour, at age 13.
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HONOLULU -- The tourism board insists it's not possible to be unhappy in Hawaii. But this day proved them wrong.

Michelle Wie's seventh attempt to make a cut in a men's professional tournament effectively ended early in her first round, with a front-nine featuring three double-bogeys. Her day-end score, a 9-over 79, was less telling than the deflated feeling in her galleries. Expecting a charmed third appearance at the PGA Tour's Sony Open, her supporters, on some holes 2,000 to 3,000 strong, were sorely disappointed.

The round wasn't without its consolations. On a treacherous day, with gusts of 20-25 mph, the 16-year-old junior at Punahou High owned her tee ball: hitting eight of 14 fairways tied her for 14th-best in the field.

Yet each time she hit a bad shot, it led to three more. There were, she admitted, "a lot of wasted strokes out there."

Most arose from something other than technique. Her putter, her usual bugbear, betrayed her more than once. But more often the culprit was her decision-making.

Her first bogey of the day came on the par-4 12th, her third hole of the day. (She started on No. 10.) Rattled, she stepped onto the 13th tee and sailed her ball left. Hitting what looked like a utility wood out of an iffy lie, she left her second shot 60 yards short of the green. Risking a flop shot to a tucked pin, she left it short, in the rough, and wound up with her first double.

Her second came two holes later, at the par-4 15th. With her ball in the front-right bunker, she decided to play ahead of Camillo Villegas, who, though away, was trying to figure out a tricky drop from a cart path. Her shot sailed by the pin, across a thin, 30-foot-wide finger of green, and into another bunker.

(Her third double was at the par-3 17th, where, after splashing out of a bunker, she three-putted from 25 feet.)

Yet more than anything else, her poor play was likely caused by weighty expectations.

After her round, she said she "didn't feel any pressure," but in the same breath mentioned something that surely compromised her ability to play her best: leaping into the competitive deep end without having participated in a tournament since November (the Casio World Open, also against the men, in Japan).

There was also the matter of increasingly emboldened naysayers and doubters who feel, in a word, that the novelty of her appearances has worn off. Then there's the Honolulu home crowd, most of whom had heard the rumors (confirmed Thursday by her mother) that last month she shot a round of 64 on the same course, from the same tees.

If it's true that the problem was pressure, then it's also true that her front nine didn't do justice to her game. Indeed, after her 10th hole, by which point the round and the tournament had gotten away from her, she relaxed, and played her final eight holes at just one over par. Her lone birdie came at the third hole (her 12th). After her 10-foot putt swirled in, she laughed and raised her arms in mock triumph.

The ability to handle nerves, however, is an integral part of the professional's craft. Her round reminded some of what happened last year at the U.S. Women's Open. Tied for the lead after three rounds, Wie shot a Sunday 82.

A good round Friday won't erase Thursday's 79, nor answer the questions it raised. But it would paint a better portrait of her capabilities.