MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. -- The Michelle Wie odyssey has gone from the curious to the bizarre.
The golf world eagerly awaited her return after four months of recuperation from a mysterious wrist injury, but Thursday's abysmal and incomplete first round only added to the confusion that has overshadowed her rare talent recently.
Questions about her injury went unanswered at her opening news conference Tuesday, as Wie channeled Mark McGwire by saying, "I don't really want to go back into the past and talk about the injuries." Had she in fact fully recovered?
Apparently not. In her comeback round at the Ginn Tribute on Thursday, Wie was 14-over through 16 holes before withdrawing from the tournament. Her swing, known the world over for its fluidity, looked cramped and stiff from the opening stroke. She did not release or follow through with confidence or flair. She guided her clubs more than swinging them, and her tee shots sprayed wildly. Wie started on the back nine and saved par on 10, but found water on 11 and snap hooked her drive on 12. She was 3-over after three holes.
Playing partner Alena Sharp said she thought Wie would withdraw at the turn. "She didn't look like she was there," Sharp said. "She didn't focus like usual."
Wie landed in the bunker on 14, and next came one of the oddest holes of her brief pro career. She pushed her drive into the trees on the par-3 15th, then searched for her ball. Her mother, father, caddie and a family friend helped look for it before she called an unplayable lie.
Then Wie's father, B.J., said something to her caddie. More than one reporter present heard him say, "What about the tee?" Within seconds, Michelle decided to go back to the tee to hit again. She told her playing partners to putt out as she walked back to the beginning of the hole.
Playing partner Janice Moodie cautioned B.J. about Rule 8-1, which forbids a player from soliciting advice. "During a stipulated round," the rule states, "a player must not ... ask for advice from anyone other than his partner or either of their caddies." The penalty is 2 strokes. After Wie blocked her second shot and ended up with a triple-bogey, B.J. approached rules official Angus McKenzie and spoke with him for several minutes while his daughter moved to the next hole. McKenzie said later that B.J. had an explanation for the interaction, saying he was only asking the caddie, "What are the options?"
Technically, there is no rules violation because Michelle did not actively ask for help. But McKenzie told B.J., "When in doubt, don't."
Sharp had the same concerns.
"Anybody can say something from outside the ropes," she said. "But he was too close. He's always so close to her. You're going to get your daughter in trouble. Everyone at the range was talking about it."
Wie's body language began to match her game. She slumped her shoulders and sighed repeatedly. She showed little energy, even in the form of frustration, trudging along to her ball and taking less than the usual time lining up putts. She said almost nothing to her playing partners or to her caddie. And no wonder. Her round felt like a geological excursion, going from water to pavement to sand to tall grass.
Then came the bottom: the par-5 third hole. Wie's tee shot veered out of bounds, into a street and down a storm drain. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who suddenly appeared on the fringe of the fairway, stood by as a little boy got on his hands and knees to peer into the drain in search of the ball. Wie played a provisional and hooked that into a pond. She walked toward the street in hopes of finding her ball, then turned and retraced her steps to the tee for the second time in the round. She eventually carded a quintuple-bogey 10, and she stood at 12-over after 12 holes.
Missing the cut became the least of Wie's troubles. The somewhat obscure Rule of 88 states that a nonmember who shoots 88 is forced to withdraw and subsequently banned from LPGA co-sponsored events for the remainder of the calendar season. Wie said later that she never considered the possibility, but soon after her score ballooned to 12-over on the par-72 course, her parents began consulting with each other and William Morris manager Greg Nared, who had a cell phone to his ear. Chris Higgs, the LPGA chief operations officer, soon drove up in a cart and spoke with Nared. Higgs had been talking about the Rule of 88 in the media tent, but he said he came out to Wie's rope line for "no particular reason."
Wie's score climbed to 14-over, and then, after she finished up on the seventh hole, Nared approached and Wie told him she was hurt. Moments later, she announced, "We're not going to play anymore."
Wie had a 43 on the front and was at 7-over 35 on the back -- two bogeys shy of 88. She shook hands with her competitors, glumly climbed into a cart, and rode to the clubhouse, where she met behind closed doors with her parents and Nared. The four spoke for 15 minutes, then an ice pack was brought in for Wie's left wrist. Wie then walked to the media tent without the ice pack.
So why did she withdraw?
An LPGA official answered that question for her, saying, "Michelle, thank you for coming in after your withdrawal from the tournament because of your wrist. Are you optimistic from here on out once your wrist does heal?"
Wie's reply: "Yeah, it felt good when I was practicing, but I kind of tweaked it in the middle of the round a little bit. So just taking cautionary measures, and I know what to work on. The only way to go up from here is up, so I'm feeling pretty good about it."
Later, she elaborated: "Well, I think that when an injury is in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Oh, this is going to hurt.' The last thing you're thinking about is trying to hit the ball straight.'
That, combined with her stilted follow-through, shows that her injury has not healed. Yet Wie did not shake her wrist or show any sign of discomfort during the round. Last season, she grabbed her wrist on several occasions, even during news conferences.
"She wasn't holding her wrist," Sharp said. "I think she just had a bad day. If it was her wrist, why wait until the last two holes [to withdraw]?"
That question probably will never be answered. Nor will the question of what happened with her father and her caddie on the fifth hole. "I don't know," Wie told reporters. "It's a long way back."
And it's a long way back for Wie herself. The withdrawal will not affect her world ranking, but she has not broken par in an LPGA event since July. That doesn't include all the trouble she has faced in recent men's events. The season's second major awaits next week at the LPGA Championship in Maryland, and Wie is currently "100 percent up in the air," according to those close to her. Whenever she plays next, Wie will face more questions about her withdrawal, her wrist, her swing and the involvement of her parents. But the most worrisome question might be about her state of mind.
"I kind of felt bad for her," Sharp said. "She didn't seem happy."
Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.