Michelle Wie: doing it her way

ROHIT BRIJNATH

WHAT exactly is the prescribed route to greatness, the accepted course to excellence? Mostly, experts say, pay your dues. It means don't get ahead of yourself, play your age-group, follow the established path of moving up a level, improving, dominating, then moving on, remember your time will come.

But sometimes talent won't wait, it strains at the reins of patience, it dismisses tradition to find its own particular way. Kobe Bryant ignored the customary journey through college basketball, just thrust himself into the competitive universe of the NBA and ultimately soared. Eyeballs popped when the Williams sisters gave up junior tennis when Venus was 11, they played by their own rules, and it worked.

Some prodigies are so gifted that they adapt, they find themselves. Some prodigies have a tendency to go deaf, advice is not so much distilled and analysed as rebounds off them. Golf, for instance, is a game that demands maturity, a clear, grown-up mind, thoughtful choices, and even Tiger Woods, at 29, sees himself as a child of sorts, insisting last fortnight that golfers discover their best games in their 30s.

It's why people say Michelle Wie should be playing against fellow amateurs, should enter a college of her choice to round her game and personality. But Michelle Wie won't hear a word of it, she can't wait, won't wait. So what if she's 15 and girlish. She likes playing with the pros.

Male pros, to be exact.

Women don't mix with men in sport, only because physically the gap is insurmountable. Men are not necessarily smarter, they merely move faster and hit harder, making for an unequal contest. Occasional bragging by the Williams sisters was settled by defeat by a low-ranked German male player, who rumour has it smoked a cigarette in boredom at changeovers.

But golf is another matter, there lies the future possibility that a woman could perhaps compete with men one day. Already Wie, at six feet tall, smacks 300-yard drives — enough to make grown hackers like me cringe for such distance is to be found by us only on iced fairways. Oddly enough, it is not just strength, but the delicacy of golf's short game, all subtle pitches and chips that women have not rivalled yet either.

Wie is bold, and that is what prodigies need to be, but for many she is simply brazen. She wants to play the Masters and tried to qualify this year by playing the US Amateur Public Links Championship, knocked off a few men but lost at the quarter-final stage; recently at the women's British Open she talked longingly about the men's British Open. For long she has said she wants to be like Tiger Woods, but people wonder, wouldn't it be a start if she began by wanting to be Annika Sorenstam?

Nancy Lopez, the legendary women's golfer, said she found Wie's stance of taking on the men a "little insulting", considering she isn't beating the women yet. Laura Davies, another fine women's player, said recently: "Michelle is a great player. But if I was her I think I'd be more concerned about trying to beat Annika, about trying to be the best women's golfer, before worrying about all that other stuff".

Wie is a magnet for debate, but also for crowds. She plays, they come. When she contested the men's John Deere Classic recently, tournament attendances rocketed and spectators tramped in droves behind her. She became the first amateur to play the McDonalds LPGA Championship, a major for women, reportedly because McDonalds threatened to forgo its sponsorship if she wasn't invited. She is allowed only full-time on the women's tour at 18, but till then is allowed a certain amount of sponsor exemptions into tournaments. Everyone wants her.

Wie is no poser, peel away the layers of hype and there stands a supremely gifted player. Before the women's British Open began, in limited tournaments this year, her results were good enough to put her No.13 on the women's money list. At the three women's majors preceding the British Open, she was tied 14th at Kraft Nabisco, second at the McDonalds LPGA Championship and was tied for the lead going into the fourth day at the US Women's Open before collapsing. Feel free to be staggered.

But golfing ability is not the issue with Wie, winning is. She competes splendidly, but she isn't winning. At 15, it might be expected; at 15, says even Tiger Woods, she should be playing smaller tournaments, amateur tournaments, where she would learn to win, for victory, at whatever level, is the greatest education.

It's where we return to the concept of routes, of paths. Woods, for all his fabulous gifts, did not leap onto the men's tour. He played amateur golf, and won, and kept winning, three US Junior Amateurs and three US Amateurs, went to Stanford University, learning to grind, learning about clutch shots, learning about leading from the front and coming from the back, learning about mental strength, learning how to dominate, learning about mindsets. Learning what it takes to win, learning to make a habit of it, learning from winning. Experience that sits in his trouser pocket even now, which emboldens him, motivates him, reminds him he's done it before and thus can do it again.

Learn from the best is the traditional way. But Michelle Wie, and her father, they believe they know best. As Wie said recently: "I realize that I am not at the stage where I can win a PGA Tour event, where I feel like I am better than any of those guys out there. I am out there to learn from them. And it's great. Playing in all the different kinds of tours, PGA, LPGA, playing in amateur events, they are all so unique in their own way and I feel like I am learning."

Michelle Wie is clear, she's going to do it her way. It seems arrogant, absurd, short-sighted, but there's also something daring and defiant and refreshing about her, a giggling teenager unwavering in her child-like belief that she knows where she is going.

Part of the beauty of sport lies in its unexpectedness, in athletes eschewing conventional wisdom and setting out to make their own destinies. New ways to greatness are discovered only because some athletes are undaunted, willing to play the explorer, to go where no athlete has been before, to navigate a route others would not dare to tread.

In a few years, Michelle Wie will not be an oddity anymore, a teenager with a big drive and bigger drives, but just another competitor, and potential and promise will need to be translated into results. Into winning. Prodigies may be courted by breathless sponsors, and doors opened for them, but they also must live up to outsized expectations.

Maybe one day Michelle Wie will compete with men, walk triumphantly into the Masters clubhouse where no women members exist, change the landscape of her sport. Maybe not. But it is a journey worth taking with her.