SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- There was something appropriately symbolic about the way the morning began. As about a dozen players warmed up Thursday for the first round of the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, Michelle Wie was off to the extreme right side of the range, hitting balls under the watchful eyes of her mother, father, coach, caddie and manager. The only thing more appropriate would have been if she were to the far left, the area of the course where most of her many wayward shots ended up in a first-round 82 that pretty much guarantees she will miss the cut in a women's major championship for the first time in 15 tries.
Playing with Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim -- the same two with whom she was paired in the first round of her first LPGA major, the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she finished an astonishing T-9 at the age of 13 -- Wie had the luxury of spending the 5-hour, 9-minute round with two of her friends on what has become an increasingly unfriendly tour for Team Wie. But there was little time for idle chatter as Wie struggled with her swing right out of the box -- on No. 4 her snap hook barely cleared the hazard only to go out of bounds -- and never appeared comfortable on the golf course.
Her comments after the round showed an odd disconnect between the way she perceived the day and what appeared to be reality. "It's just a very fine line between shooting 69 and shooting what I shot today," she said. "It's really frustrating because my scores aren't showing the way I'm playing."
That's true, but not in the way she meant. Her 82 on Thursday could have been a lot higher. She hit only four fairways and four greens, and on several occasions had wayward shots take fortunate bounces, including on No. 14 where she clanked an iron from a perfect lie in the fairway off the bleachers left of the green. She one-putted six of the first 10 greens, but the patchwork game she had cobbled together soon collapsed and she played the final eight holes in 8 over par, shooting a 44 on the back nine.
Mixed in with a shocking array of snap hooks and high block-outs that sailed far right, there were enough glimmers of greatness to remind one of the way Wie has played in the past. At times a double-bogey was turned into a bogey or a par was saved by a stunning shot. She hit several spectacular bunker shots, made a couple of sensational chips that demonstrated delicate touch and rolled in a half-dozen putts in the 8-foot range. It was really a round closer to 89 than to 69. The "fine line" between 69 and what Wie shot in the first round was more like a chasm between fantasy perception and cruel reality.
It was the 22nd consecutive round in which Wie has failed to break par, stretching back to the final round of the Evian Masters last July. In 14 previous LPGA majors she has finished in the top five six times, but in her most recent major -- the McDonald's LPGA Championship earlier this month -- she finished last, 35 strokes out of first place and 10 strokes out of next-to-last place.
That performance came one week after she withdrew from the Ginn Tribute, citing injury, and then showed up at Bulle Rock, the McDonald's course, two days later to practice, angering LPGA players who saw it as a lack of respect for their tour. It was clear from comments early in the week here by Annika Sorenstam, host of the Ginn tournament, that not much has been done to repair the damage. The result is not much sympathy for her poor play.
The decline in Wie's play that began last year at the Evian Masters was accelerated after the Sony Open on the PGA Tour in January when Wie suffered an injury to her left wrist she said came in a jogging accident. According to Wie, she went several months without hitting balls and lost both hand strength and confidence in her swing during that time period.
"I'm really shaky off the tee," Wie said. "I just have to play through it. I just need one round where all my shots work to get my confidence back. I need to trust that the ball will land somewhere in North Carolina."
Wie did not appear to be experiencing any discomfort from her wrist on Thursday. She played without the wrist wrap she wore at the McDonald's, and, unlike at that event, did not have a physical therapist with her to apply on-course treatment. On several occasions she took the kind of aggressive swings from the deep rough that would not have been possible with a sore wrist.
The part of her game that seems to be suffering most is trust. What appears to be going on is more a crisis of confidence than it is the result of an injury. On the range, Wie's coach, David Leadbetter, had Michelle swinging with a Gary Player-like step-through move in which she would follow the flight of the ball by taking a step toward the target. "It's forcing me into trusting my shots," Wie said, "because right now all I need is the confidence to play well.
Certainly, nothing that happened in Thursday's first round at Pine Needles was going to make Wie feel any better about her game. Wie has already withdrawn from the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour in two weeks and her next scheduled event is the Evian Masters in France in late July, followed by the Women's British Open and the Women's Canadian Open. In September, she'll be off to Stanford University to begin her freshman year. Right now, the escape offered by college probably seems like a great alternative to Wie, who has been getting some harsh lessons in the school of hard knocks.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.