HAD MICHELLE WIE won the LPGA's SBS Open, we were prepared to call it the greatest week in tour history. 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, and 2 1/2 rounds of 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. 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, 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 and breathless, practically nonstop plugs on Golf Channel, 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.
"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."
The only thing Wie doesn't have in abundance is the knowledge of how to close out a tournament. Her last victory at any level was the 2003 U.S. Women's Public Links, and her final round at the SBS will be remembered for a messy double bogey on the 11th hole (Big Play, page G12) and the short birdie putt she blew on number 16 to end her bid. But Wie didn't lose the tournament 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 in a row beginning on the 13th. 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.
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. 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. 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.
It is significant that all of these announcements came at the SBS Open, the first tournament of the post-Annika epoch. 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.
"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. "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."
Wie's renaissance began at last fall's LPGA qualifying tournament. Having experienced two years of ragged play and a series of ugly controversies, 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. Her raw talent has never been questioned, 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, at which she played near-flawless golf en route to earning her spot on the LPGA tour. When Wie floated off the final green at LPGA International, 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."
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. "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 in her wrists were suffering the brunt of 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. "She is very committed," says Cook. "She has that intense desire you see in athletes who are burning to be the best."