Positively Smashing

Angela Stanford edged out the star attraction, Michelle Wie, yet everyone agreed that the LPGA season began with a bang on multiple fronts at the SBS Open
February 23, 2009

HAD MICHELLE WIEwon the LPGA's SBS Open, we were prepared to call it the greatest week in tourhistory. Despite being three up with eight to play, Wie couldn't seal the dealin her debut as a card-carrying tour member, so the LPGA's season opener onOahu, in Hawaii, will have to be downgraded to merely a smashing success. Wiedidn't win, but she temporarily turned an island in the middle of the Pacificinto the center of the golfing world, and 2 1/2 rounds of near-perfect golfleft no doubt that the 19-year-old will be a week-in-and-week-out force as sheplays a full LPGA schedule for the first time. The last two years of injury andcontroversy had turned Wie into a walking cautionary tale, but it took all ofone round for her to remind everyone of her star power. Playing in stiff windslast Thursday, she controlled her ball beautifully and had perfect pace on thegreens, roaring home with three closing birdies to cap a 66 that left her astroke off the lead and put a charge into the tournament that lasted two moredays. The immediate results were record crowds and breathless, practicallynonstop plugs on Golf Channel, and by week's end some of the more farsighted ofWie's colleagues were openly rooting for her to win, knowing what a boost itwould be for women's golf.

"She is goingto be one of the best things that's ever happened to the LPGA tour," saidveteran pro Christina Kim. "She's beautiful, she's intelligent, she'switty, but most of all, she has that kind of rare star quality where you can'ttake your eyes off her."

The only thing Wiedoesn'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 herfinal round at the SBS will be remembered for a messy double bogey on the 11thhole (Big Play, page G12) and the short birdie putt she blew on number 16 toend her bid. But Wie didn't lose the tournament so much as Angela Stanford tookit away, and that, too, counts as one of last week's salient developments. Wiestill led by a shot after her double, but Stanford ruthlessly birdied threeholes in a row beginning on the 13th. Despite high winds, occasional squallsand a partisan crowd rooting against her, Stanford played airtight golf overthe closing holes to finish off a victory that has stamped the late-blooming31-year-old Texan as a star in waiting. Going back to last year Stanford hasnow won three of her last seven starts and finished no worse than sixth in thatstretch. With a palpable competitiveness and a game that betrays no weaknesses,Stanford will be a Solheim Cup terror, and if this current streak lasts muchlonger, she may challenge the conventional wisdom that Paula Creamer is thebest American at this minute.

However compellingthe on-course action was, last week featured some other macrodevelopments thatbode very well for the LPGA's future. On Thursday the tour trumpeted a new dealfor its Korean broadcast rights with JoongAng Broadcasting Corporation (JBC)that beginning in 2010 will nearly double the LPGA's annual take, to anestimated $4 million. J Golf, a division of JBC, also will become the titlesponsor of next month's tournament in Phoenix, which had lost Safeway as anunderwriter, and beginning in 2010 J Golf will sponsor a new tournament in theLos Angeles area. Adding events and revenue in this financial climate is both amorale booster and an economic necessity.

Of even moreconsequence to the LPGA was last week's announcement that under a new 10-yeardeal Golf Channel will serve as the tour's exclusive domestic cable homebeginning in 2010. For years the LPGA has knocked around TNT, ESPN and ESPN2,getting small broadcast windows and often D-list announcers, while othertournaments also play out on Golf Channel and the various networks. "Weneeded a home," says commissioner Carolyn Bivens. The tour will get thatplus all the fixings, including Golf Channel's relentless rah-rah promotions,established announcers and spin-off programming that is just beginning to bedeveloped.

It is significantthat all of these announcements came at the SBS Open, the first tournament ofthe post-Annika epoch. The LPGA has a bevy of intriguing players—Stanford amongthem—but there is no doubt who will be the tour's leading lady in the years tocome.

"She'sstarting to look like the Michelle of old," Wie's instructor, DavidLeadbetter, said last week, failing to note the irony that he was talking abouta teenager. "She's swinging the club nicely, her short game is sharp, andshe's gotten her power back, which is what separates her from the other playersout there. Not only in how she can attack a course but also on a lot of theshots around the green that she likes to play, because putting enough spin onthe 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 twoyears when I think she dreaded coming to the course, but no more. She's fallenback in love with the game."

Wie's renaissancebegan at last fall's LPGA qualifying tournament. Having experienced two yearsof ragged play and a series of ugly controversies, she had burned up loads ofgoodwill and the tournament invitations that had once been an entitlement wereno longer forthcoming. So Wie swallowed her pride and paid the fee to enter Qschool, just like all the other dreamers and wannabes. Her raw talent has neverbeen questioned, but plenty in the golf cognoscenti have wondered if Wie hasthe commensurate amount of heart and resolve. She answered most of the doubtersat Q school, the most pressure-packed tournament in the game, at which sheplayed near-flawless golf en route to earning her spot on the LPGA tour. WhenWie floated off the final green at LPGA International, she flashed what had tobe her biggest smile in years, and at the SBS she talked about the largermeaning 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. "[Theother players] always have been nice to me, and they still treat me really niceand all that, but it's a different feeling, like you're part of something—partof an association, part of a legacy."

The triumph at Qschool may have rejuvenated her spirit, but just as important has been therebuilding of her body. Wie's recent struggles could all be traced to February2007, when she suffered the first in a series of wrist injuries. It has takennearly two years for her to be made whole again. "She's not a skinny13-year-old anymore," says Gray Cook, an orthopedic specialist who hasoverseen Wie's physical therapy since July '07. "She's filled out with areally powerful lower body to complement her explosive hip turn, but she hadcomparatively very little upper-body strength. The delicate bones in her wristswere suffering the brunt of this asymmetry."

Working withresistance bands and free weights, Wie is now 80% stronger than when she beganwith Cook, according to his estimate. Standing with one leg stretched behindher, 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 desireyou see in athletes who are burning to be the best."

For Wie to getthere, she will have to stop teasing with her potential and start winningtournaments, but the near miss at the SBS was hardly a lost week, as she is nowwell-positioned on the money list and points standings for the Solheim Cup androokie-of-the-year races. Following Saturday's final round Wie couldn't hideher disappointment at not winning. Still, she said, "I can take a lot ofpositive thoughts from this week." Ditto her new tour.

PGA TourConfidential: Get the inside scoop at GOLF.com/confidential.

PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckCLOSE CALL Wie topped the field with 14 birdies, but made five bogeys, plus a crippling double in the final round. PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckMONEY PLAYER Stanford has won $850,879—a quarter of her nine-year career earnings—in her last seven starts.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)