Wie's path to greatness headed in right direction

She stumbled home at a big-pressure moment, yes. That much is undeniable. It came time to at least put herself in position to take the U.S. Women's Open down to the wire, and when it was all said and done, she just couldn't rise to the challenge.

But, hey, enough about Annika Sorenstam. Let's talk about Michelle Wie.

It's interesting about Wie: The golf world around her appears capable of dividing her performances into bite-sized segments, then choosing only each of those that suit the observer's particular point of view. In this case, the talk is almost completely about Wie's final-round collapse at the Open, but -- tellingly -- not at all about the three superlative rounds that came before it.

Wie shot an 82 on the last day at Cherry Hills, and to some it was proof that the 15-year-old Hawaii native just doesn't yet know how to win. You heard that a lot in the aftermath of her awful final found: Wie has not played in enough junior tournaments, Public Links competitions and the like to have experienced winning under pressure-filled conditions. She couldn't take the Open, the theory goes, because she wasn't sufficiently prepared to rise to the moment.

Pardon me while I hack up this hairball. Michelle Wie, in fact, is doing what the great talents do -- she is seeking out the best competition that she can find, wherever she can find it. She has shown herself, at 15, unafraid to enter a men's PGA tournament, unafraid to hit the ball so well for so long that she could even ponder coming into the final day of a U.S. Women's Open with a shot at the championship.

We are watching a golfer grow up before us, sure, and that takes in an entire range of considerations, from the purely physical to the utterly emotional. She's a kid. She's just not like most of the kids you've ever met in your life.

Michelle Wie is different -- and we've no need to become separatists on that topic. Look, Brittany Lang and Morgan Pressel are different. They're both teenaged amateurs as well, and they finished tied for second at Cherry Hills, and they most certainly prove that it's possible to be very young and very competitive on the LPGA Tour right now.

Dunno what that says about the LPGA's overall depth, but it most certainly suggests that the kids can play. So why shouldn't they?

It's always a bit staggering to hear people suggest that what someone like Michelle Wie really needs is to go play against inferior competition. When she burst upon the national scene last year, in fact, most of the first wave of stories headed in the opposite direction, mentioning the lack of genuine competition in the tournaments Wie was playing and her yearning to take her game out on the longer courses, against the best players, and see what she could make of it.

Why anyone would hold that against her, or suggest that it is retarding her development, is one of those imponderables. Freddy Adu hasn't become a savior in professional soccer, but you don't hear too many people suggesting that what he really needs is to go back on his high school team. Adu is a talent. Talent needs to go find its level. It's the most natural thing in the world, in the sense that it puts age in a proper context. Age is a factor, not THE factor. There's a difference.

None of this is to say that Michelle Wie is some sort of finished product. Of course she isn't; she's 15. She is playing the biggest rooms, before the paying crowds, in the heat and light of genuine expectation, for the first time. The only truly abnormal thing would be for her to handle all of it without skipping a beat.

Instead, she did the other day what even a great young talent will do: She rattled. It happens, doesn't it? Wie shot 69-73-72 before that final round of 82, when she missed putts from point-blank range and spent most of the day covering her face with her hand.

It makes for a compelling storyline, the one about the young kid who hasn't learned to win. But look closer: Karen Strupples, a touring LPGA pro, shot 78 on that final day, and she had begun it in a three-way tie for the lead. Lorena Ochoa, a touring pro, needed a par on the 72nd hole to finish with the same score that Birdie Kim recorded in winning the championship, and promptly dumped her tee shot into the water en route to an 8 on the 18th.

Michelle Wie didn't fall apart like that, all at once. She fell apart hole by hole, and her age wasn't really the thing, and she certainly had company. Playing a few groups ahead of her, a much more seasoned golfer, one who has demonstrated time and time again the ability to win the tough competitions, also steadily played her way out of contention.

That golfer, Annika Sorenstam, bogeyed her first hole of the day and went on to shoot 77, the end of a long and difficult week in which she never really even threatened to win her third leg of the Grand Slam.

In other words, Sorenstam didn't have the week that Wie did, only the ending: The two finished in a tie for 23rd place. You get the strong feeling that both have better major tournaments ahead. No reason in the world to suggest that only one should be playing them.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com