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."
Krickstein knows more about developing young talent than most. His son, Aaron, became a professional tennis player in 1983 at the age of 16; two weeks later he was the youngest tournament winner in ATP history. During an injury-plagued, 13-year career he was ranked as high as sixth in the world. "Aaron wasn't as tough mentally as Morgan, or he'd have done better," says Herb, a retired pathologist. "Tennis is like a prizefight: Somebody wins, somebody loses. In golf you play against the course, not the players. It's not as hard on you emotionally."
Morgan's mother, Kathy Krickstein Pressel, was also a tennis player. She won a Big Ten title in 1978 at Michigan and was a teaching pro for 15 years. Herb says Morgan is "a carbon copy of her mother. She looks like her and has the same temperament. She's very emotional and strong-minded." Morgan tried playing tennis, but Herb observed that while his eight-year-old granddaughter had great hand-eye coordination, she lacked quickness. A recreational golfer, he took Morgan to the range to hit a few balls. "Right from the start," Herb says, "she had the most natural swing."
After Morgan turned 10, Herb would drive her every Sunday to West Palm Beach to take lessons from Martin Hall, who has been Morgan's only instructor since then. Pressel broke 70 at age 11, then at 12 became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open, carding a 70 with her Uncle Aaron carrying her bag. She shot 77--77 and missed the cut. "I'd only been playing four years, so I wasn't that good," she says. "But I had so much fun that week, I knew I wanted to be a professional golfer."
She started practicing after school until dark and then six or seven hours daily on the weekends. Her improvement was dramatic. In July 2003, when Pressel was 15 and Wie was already famous at 13, they faced off in match play for the first time. Pressel prevailed 3 and 2 in the round of 16 at the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship. "I knew I had the game to beat her," Pressel says. "I'm pretty tough mentally."
Morgan needed her toughness that summer, when Kathy, who had battled breast cancer four years earlier, learned that the disease had spread to her brain. "Morgan would try to play in a tournament, then her mother would take a turn for the worse, and she'd have to pull out," Herb recalls. Kathy was only 43 when she died. "I think about her a lot," Morgan says. "I'm a stronger person because of it."
The tragedy exacerbated a rift that had developed between Morgan and her father, Mike, who works in commercial real estate. Morgan says they have a "personality conflict," though she won't go into specifics. After her mother's death Morgan told her father she wanted to move in with her grandparents Herb and Evelyn, who live just a 10-minute drive away. In doing so, she left her sister, Madison, now 14, and brother, Mitchell, 12, behind. "It wasn't a pleasant decision, and it wasn't approved by me," Mike says. "But I'm a single father and a widower and have two other children to worry about. It was a parenting thing she didn't like. She was a 15-year-old who'd just lost her mother and was pissed at the world. Right now the relationship is O.K., so I don't want to say anything. Things are amicable."
Morgan, who frequently talks to her brother and sister on the phone, has thrived while living with the Kricksteins, who have the time to accompany her to tournaments. Herb, a 14 handicapper who has been as low as a seven, works with her on course management and putting, scouring books and scanning the Golf Channel for tips. They have a sweet, affecting relationship. "It's fun," Morgan says. "We have a great time. There's definitely a generation gap, but my grandparents have come a long way."
Herb intends to be by her side this week, when Pressel tries to win her first U.S. Women's Amateur, at Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga. A potential rematch with Wie won't happen, however, because Wie skipped the Amateur, figuring she could not be at her best if she flew back from England on Sunday night and teed off at Ansley on Monday. "I was looking forward to playing her last year, but In-Bee Park beat her in the second round," Pressel says. "Actually, Michelle lost. She was 2 up with three to play and lost the last three holes. She three-putted the 18th from 15 feet."
Though Pressel delights in pointing out chinks in the Wie armor, she's looking past the young Hawaiian to a long career during which she becomes the talk of the golf world. "I want to make a splash," Pressel says. "My ultimate goal is to be Number 1 in the world and to make it to the Hall of Fame. I want to bring more money and attention to the LPGA. There's a younger generation coming along that has the potential to do that, and some interesting rivalries are developing." She smiles knowingly, her green eyes bright. "Rivalries are not always a bad thing, right?"
Not a bad thing at all.
A top teaching pro assesses the fast-rising stars in women's golf
THE WOMEN'S GAME is enjoying a resurgence thanks to a new wave of amateurs and pros. Which of the young players will have the greatest long-term impact? Jim Suttie, a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher from Naples, Fla., evaluates their skills and ranks them based on potential.
PAULA CREAMER, 19, pro. CREDENTIALS: Two wins as an LPGA rookie in '05; youngest to earn $1 million on tour. TEACHER'S TAKE: Excellent ball striker and iron player who hits it laser-straight; channels emotional energy in positive way; working on releasing her putter to avoid blocking putts to the right.
MICHELLE WIE, 15, amateur. CREDENTIALS: Three second-place LPGA finishes in '05; quarterfinalist in U.S. Amateur Public Links in July. TEACHER'S TAKE: Rare athleticism among women--she can turn the ball and hit it high or low; powerful from tee to green; average at pitching and lag putting.
MORGAN PRESSEL, 17, amateur. CREDENTIALS: Tied for second at U.S. Women's Open in July; won U.S. junior girls' grand slam. TEACHER'S TAKE: Has a complete game; aggressive putter and terrific reader of greens; sometimes gets too pumped up, leading to poor judgment; could use more length.
AREE SONG, 19, pro. CREDENTIALS: Second in Kraft Nabisco Championship as a rookie in '04; won 15 U.S. junior titles. TEACHER'S TAKE: Wealth of experience; solid off tee and good mid-range putter; under intense pressure from those around her, so not as happy on the course as she used to be.
BRITTANY LANG, 19, pro. CREDENTIALS: Tied for second at '05 U.S. Women's Open; two-time All-America at Duke, leading Blue Devils to '05 NCAA title. TEACHER'S TAKE: Long and straight with driver; great feel around the greens but too aggressive with lag putts; needs to work on club selection.
IN-BEE PARK, 17, amateur. CREDENTIALS: Beat Wie one up in '04 U.S. Women's Amateur; won U.S. Girls' Junior in '02. TEACHER'S TAKE: Accurate with woods and irons, but rhythm of putting stroke is sometimes off; her LPGA sponsor's invitations may be limited because she doesn't speak English well.