THE LATEST indicator of Michelle Wie's impact on golf could be found last week along the one-lane road leading to Shaker Run Golf Club, site of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Shaker Run is set amid the cornfields of Lebanon, Ohio, and for the last mile leading to the course, the grassy shoulders on both sides of the road were bumper-to-bumper with parked automobiles belonging to 500 or so golf fans who every day hoofed up the long, steep road for a chance to glimpse Wie and, possibly, history.
The Publinks is the USGA's least prestigious event. There is no TV coverage and no need for gallery ropes. But after the 15-year-old Wie came out of a June qualifier as the first female to earn her way into the field for a historically male USGA event, this year's Publinks instantly became big-time. What made her presence all the more delicious was the thought of a teen in a skort rubbing elbows with Hootie Johnson and the boys at Augusta National next April. An invitation to the Masters is traditionally conferred upon the Publinks winner, and Johnson affirmed that Wie would be invited if she won.
Not this year, anyway. After three resounding match-play wins, Wie's run ended in Friday's quarterfinal against BYU junior and eventual champion Clay Ogden. But the Publinks concluded Wie's magical monthlong tour through the golf world, which included stops at the U.S. Women's Open and the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic. With three tantalizing performances she proved one thing above all: Among golfers, only Tiger Woods can move the needle like Wie.
High-minded observers find something distasteful about a 15-year-old's being exploited by all the entities that make up the sports-industrial complex. But Wie has publicly ruminated on the "Tiger money" awaiting her when she turns pro, and she knows that a busy summer such as this one will help build her brand. Her ambitions transcend golf. She began working with sports psychologist Jim Loehr nine months ago, and at their first session he asked Wie what her goals were. The then 14-year-old sat back in her chair, thought for a while, and finally said, "I want to make a statement to all women that there are no limitations. If I can drive the ball 300 yards, if I can compete against men, if I can make it to the Masters, then maybe I can inspire them to break free in their own lives."
Tied for the lead after three rounds, Wie was on the brink of becoming the youngest player to win the Women's Open. Single-day attendance records for the tournament fell on Saturday and Sunday, and the number of TV viewers for the final round shot up 86% from last year. Alas, a jittery 82 dropped Wie to 23rd. Two weeks later Wie played in the John Deere on a sponsor's exemption. A first-round 70 put her in position to become the first woman to make the cut on Tour since Babe Zaharias in 1945 and gave the Friday round as much buzz as any this year. Wie shot 71 to miss the cut by two strokes but beat 48 pros.
The Publinks again showed that Wie has the talent to put herself in position to do amazing things, but not yet the savvy or the bulletproof confidence to close the deal. "These setbacks only prove that she has more to learn, which is fabulous," says Loehr. "It wouldn't be healthy for her to do all of this at 15 without being challenged." --Alan Shipnuck