ST. ANNES-ON-SEA, England -- The remarkable ball-striking ability of Michelle Wie, which for so long wowed the public, sponsors and golf's governing bodies more with the promise of potential than with the production of performance, has matured into a solidly consistent effort that seems on the verge of a breakthrough.
While Wie once again failed to close the deal at the Evian Masters -- letting a two-stroke lead with seven holes to play turn into a two-stroke deficit in the space of six holes -- this time it had more to do with the spectacular play of Karrie Webb than it did with missed putts by the kid. Triumph seems as inevitable as the arrival of the next new moon. The question is exactly where in her personal lunar cycle is Wie at this moment.
True, there were a couple of sloppy swings by the teen on the closing holes at Evian -- the tee shots on Nos. 13 and 15 come to mind, as does the play from the greenside bunker on No. 13. But that was nothing that would not be expected from anyone in that situation, let alone a 16-year-old.
While it might very well be that the first professional victory for Wie is still a ways down the road -- her lack of experience closing and the increasing number of talented players on the LPGA being the two main reasons -- that initial triumph could also come as early as this week at the Weetabix Women's British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes simply because Wie positions herself to win with astonishing regularity.
Wie's tie for second with Laura Davies on Saturday at the Evian was her ninth consecutive top-five finish in an LPGA event, including her fourth-place finish at the Samsung World Championship last October after which she was disqualified for taking a bad drop. Even more remarkably, she has finished T-3, T-5 and T-3 in the first three LPGA majors of the year, and in her career has played in 11 majors, with six finishes in the top five. The closest she has come to winning was at the Kraft Nabisco Championship this year where she failed to get up-and-down from about 25 feet to get into a playoff with Webb and Lorena Ochoa.
Still, the numbers are indisputable. Wie's combined finishes in the three majors this year add up to 11 (T-3 at the Kraft Nabisco, T-5 at the McDonald's LPGA Championship and T-3 at the U.S. Women's Open). The next best is Annika Sorenstam at 16 (6-9-1). Ochoa has a cumulated number of 31 (2-9-20), while Webb is at 40 (1-2-37), Juli Inkster is at 45 (5-34-6), and Se Ri Pak is at 49 (45-1-3). Also of note is the fact that Wie has yet to miss a cut in 11 majors -- astonishing when you consider she played her first two when she was 13 years old. Only twice has she finished outside of the top 15.
Although the success has been as impressive as it could be short of producing an actual victory, some of those major efforts by Wie also produced uncomfortable moments. There was the 82 in the U.S. Women's Open last year while owning a share of the final-round lead, and the three missed putts and one missed green from 100 yards out over the closing three holes of this year's McDonald's. There was also that failure to get up-and-down on the 72nd hole at the Kraft Nabisco.
But the progress has been recognizable and undeniable. What time will tell is whether those loose shots will be erased by added experience. The rate of progress indicates that the answer is yes.
The mere fact of age -- 16 is young by any measuring stick in professional sports -- and the clear lack of competitive experience compared to the best in the women's game likely mean that the ability to survive a final-round shootout could be still some distance away for Wie. And there is nothing wrong with that. The experience Wie failed to gain by essentially skipping junior golf has denied her the positive memories of success in which to find comfort when she is trying to hold up under pressure and close the deal. But her learning curve is impressive, and the regularity with which she puts herself in position to win seems to indicate that opportunity combined with added experience will equate to victory.
There are two ways in which Wie is fully capable of winning right now. One is for her to open a tournament with rounds of, say, 64 and 66 to storm out to a big lead that will ease the weekend pressure. Another would be to tee off about five groups from the end on a Sunday and post a low number early that holds up as others fade down the stretch. There is no question Wie is capable of firing some very low numbers and, while she might lack the intimidation factor right now in a head-to-head confrontation, she is certainly capable of intimidating from afar by posting a succession of red numbers on a scoreboard for the leaders to see.
The Women's British Open is the next-to-last LPGA tournament for Wie in 2006, followed only by the Samsung in October. She has men's events in Pennsylvania, Switzerland and Japan on her schedule. Although some might says it's too much to expect for Wie to capture her first LPGA victory in a major championship, it was 11 years ago that Sorenstam got her first tour win in the 1995 U.S. Women's Open. The Swede has followed with 10 more majors and 67 additional LPGA victories. Those are numbers to which Wie could -- and should -- aspire. This is the tour on which she can truly make her mark on history. And it could all start this week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.