Wie does it her way -- again

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- No, it wasn't the right way. Or the mature way. Or even the winning way. But it was certainly her way.

Michelle Wie had to cover about 25 feet in two shots to force a playoff in her first professional major. Her ball rested on the back fringe of the par-5 18th hole after a pin-seeking 5-iron got her across a water hazard in two. She could have taken out her putter, knocked it close, carded her birdie, and walked back to the 18th tee with Lorena Ochoa and eventual champ Karrie Webb.

Her father, B.J., thought of that strategy. So did her caddie, Greg Johnston.

Instead, Wie did what she grew up doing, what she's always loved doing.

She went for it.

And she lost.

Wie told Johnston she was going to chip it. There was no further discussion. She explained after the round that she thought that gave her a better chance to hole out for an eagle and a championship.

She landed her chip where she wanted, but she helplessly watched her ball roll 10 feet past the hole. She missed the putt and walked off the course in a tie for third place. She admitted feeling "sad," but took all questions without tears.

The flood of criticism will come again. Skeptics will shake their heads at youthful indiscretion. They will cluck at how Wie needs to learn how to win before taking the big stage. They will have a point.

And they will miss the point.

Wie is learning how to win. She did not come apart on the final day as she did last year in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open. She did not finish bogey-bogey as she did at the Casio Open in Japan to miss the cut. She shot a 2-under 70 on Sunday, and 8-under overall in a tournament where only 10 players broke par. She made big putts to go with her big drives, she came from four strokes back to take a brief lead, and she finished closer to a major championship than ever before. If it wasn't for her illegal drop at the Samsung World Championship, she would have three top-four finishes in three LPGA events as a pro.

This season, she's played in two LPGA events and finished one stroke out of a playoff both times. She would be seventh on the LPGA money list if she were a member, and that will get her into the U.S. Women's Open on merit rather than publicity. Her No. 2 ranking in the new Rolex standings has drawn rolled eyes, but can anyone honestly look at her game and her performances and not say she's the second-best women's golfer in the world this year?

Yet there's something even more important here. Wie stayed true to herself.

Some of the bravado of her childhood has vanished in the stampede of maturity and media training. She doesn't talk as much anymore about challenging Tiger Woods or playing in The Masters. She said in November her goal for her first pro year was not to beat the men, but to win an LPGA tournament.

But the real Wie -- the true Wie -- wants to make history, dominate the LPGA Tour, play The Masters, play with the men, beat the men. The true Wie dreams big -- huge, really -- and does not choose the safe route. She went for it at age 10 when she came to North Carolina to become the youngest player in the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links, and she went for it last year in the John Deere Classic when conservative play would have earned her a pass to play into the weekend. Wie went for it then, and the same thing happened. She failed.

Yet she failed then as she failed Sunday at the Kraft Nabisco: in the short term.

In the long term, she has a chance to represent a type of courage not many have had before. She has the courage to take a risk and fail, whether playing against men or chipping for an eagle and a title. Crotchety curmudgeons may not appreciate that, but countless little girls who lined the gallery all weekend certainly do.

Maybe Wie will never win the big one. Maybe she'll never get another shot at a two-putt for a playoff in a major.

But that's looking a lot less likely. What is looking more likely is that Wie will eventually win the big one without winning many little ones. And no, that's not how Tiger did it. That's not how anyone's done it. And that's exactly the point.

There's everyone else's way. There's the "right" way. And then there's Wie's way.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.