WHILE MOST of the golfing world has been gushing and cooing over the booming drives and bold career moves of Michelle Wie--the 15-year-old prodigy who has yet to win an LPGA event but is intent on beating the boys-- Morgan Pressel, the top-ranked female amateur in the country, has charted a less audacious course. A 17-year-old scrapper who gained prominence by tying for second at the U.S. Women's Open in June, Pressel is satisfied with taking on and whipping her own kind.
Pressel doesn't hit the ball 300 yards; at a compact 5'5" (compared with the 6'1" Wie), her drives max out at about 260. She doesn't aspire to be the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 to make the cut at a PGA Tour event. She doesn't want to try to qualify for the Masters. Pressel is the anti-Wie. "Michelle could help the LPGA tour, but not if she keeps playing in PGA events," says Pressel, a senior at Saint Andrew's School in Boca Raton, Fla., where she scored 1,350 on the SAT. "Annika [Sorenstam] played once against the men and then came back to promote women's golf. Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs once, then she was smart enough to go back to playing against women while lobbying for equal prize money in tennis. Michelle's trying to exclude herself from all that. She's not interested in promoting women's golf. She's interested in promoting Michelle Wie."
"I don't feel any obligation [to promote women's golf]," Wie said last week at the Women's British Open, where she tied for third. "I'm just doing what I want to do."
Lately, women's golf has done a pretty good job promoting itself, boosted by a crop of talented teens from the U.S. and Asia (box, page 54). In addition to Pressel and Wie, there's Paula Creamer, who turns 19 on Friday; last month she romped to her second LPGA win of the year, an eight-stroke victory over an Evian Masters field that included Wie. And there's Brittany Lang, 19, a Duke All-America who tied Pressel for second at the U.S. Open, then turned pro two weeks later.
But it's Pressel's record as an amateur that is most impressive. Last week she took her fifth straight American Junior Golf Association invitational, winning by 11 strokes, at White Manor Country Club in Malvern, Pa. Pressel has also made the cut in all five LPGA events she's entered this year, including two majors, and will pass up a scholarship from Duke to try to get her tour card at qualifying school in November, six months before her 18th birthday. (In an oddly reasoned decision LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw gave Pressel permission to go to Q school and turn pro before the LPGA minimum age of 18 but ruled that any money she makes before her birthday on May 23--she can play up to six tournaments on sponsor invitations--will not count on the tour's money list.) "A few LPGA players told me they didn't think college golf would help my game," Pressel says. "I'm ready to go out and make a difference."
Pressel's performance in the Open at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver clinched her decision. Standing in the middle of the fairway at the 72nd hole, tied for the lead with Birdie Kim, Pressel seemed a lock for a playoff at the very least--until Kim, playing in the group ahead, holed a miraculous sand shot. "I saw she was in the bunker, and I remember thinking a par might win it," Pressel recalls. "When her shot went in, it felt like someone smacking me on the head with a two-by-four. Oh, no, somebody pinch me. That didn't just happen. I knew how tough it was to make birdie on that hole and that I'd probably just lost. But I gave it my best shot."
She left her approach short and wound up two-putting for bogey, but her determination, her polished, well-rounded game and her crestfallen reaction to the shocking turn of events made for terrific television. It didn't matter that Sorenstam was never a factor, or that Wie showed her age under pressure, finishing nine shots back in 23rd place after being tied for the 54-hole lead. Women's golf, suddenly, was interesting.
And the feisty Pressel could make it more interesting. "I was shocked there wasn't more talk about Wie's final-round 82," she says. "I mean, why is that? Or about how, when it looked like she was going to make the cut at the John Deere Classic [a PGA Tour event two weeks later], she played the last four holes in three over par. Are the press and other players just trying to be politically correct? I don't believe in being politically correct. Michelle hasn't played a lot of junior golf, so she hasn't learned how to finish tournaments. She's obviously more interested in making cuts. But if you keep playing against players you can't beat, how are you going to learn to win? Whether it's sinking a clutch putt to win a junior tournament or the U.S. Open, it's still a clutch putt. You have to learn to make it."
Wie's answer: "You can learn the art of winning out here [on the LPGA tour], and that's what I'm trying to do. I've been so close all year long."
Pressel hasn't had to settle for close--she's been beating the brains out of other amateurs for years. At Pinehurst No. 2 last summer she became the youngest winner in the 102-year history of the North and South Women's Amateur. And she's the only player to win each of the five AJGA girls' majors, all in the last 12 months. "I'm a big fan of the AJGA circuit," says Herb Krickstein, 71, Morgan's grandfather, who has overseen her golf career. "There's a lot to learning how to win, handling the pressure of holding a lead, playing with the lead, coming from behind."