Wie’s long road to Augusta

United States wonder girl Michelle Wie takes on Japan’s top male golfers again this week on her long road to the Masters, despite simmering criticism that she should mature first in the women’s game.

Wie, who turned 17 last month, missed the cut by one stroke at the $1,2-million Casio World Open here last year but vowed to do better this time.

”I practiced a lot this year. I’m pretty confident. I worked my butt off so I hope to do well this year,” Wie told reporters on her arrival in Japan.

Asked what she lacked last year, when she bogeyed the two final holes of the second round, she replied: ”There is nothing I can really pinpoint well.

”My dream is to get to the Masters. And that is still my number-one goal. Since I set it pretty high, it’s going to stay that way for a long time,” said the Korean-American high school senior from Hawaii, who arrived here last Thursday.

It will be Wie’s 12th outing in men’s tournaments at the national or international level over three years, including six US PGA events. But she has survived the half-way cut only once.

She made the cut and finished 34th at the Asian Tour’s SK Telecom Open in South Korea last May in a predominantly Korean field.

Here on the Par-72, 7 235-yard Kuroshio Country Club course overlooking the Pacific, she will compete against 101 men, including 87 regulars on the Japanese Tour.

With the withdrawal of Scotland’s eight-time European number one Colin Montgomerie, citing personal reasons, the field features the Japanese tour’s money leader, Shingo Katayama, and Hideto Tanihara, who was fifth at the British Open.

New Zealand’s David Smail seeks his third Casio title after 2002 and 2004.

”Whether or not I make the cut, obviously that is my goal, I just want to try my hardest and try to play the shot the hardest I can,” said Wie, known for her powerful drive, averaging about 280m as well as her weak short game.

”And if that turns out into making a cut, awesome. If it doesn’t, then I’ll be settling with the fact that I’ve tried my best,” she said.

Wie was the second woman to advance beyond the halfway mark at a men’s tournament in South Korea since 2003, when US LPGA star Se Ri Pak finished 10th at the SBS Super Tournament on the Korean PGA tour.

Pak, a South Korean, was the first woman in 58 years to make the cut in a men’s nationwide tournament since American Babe Didrikson Zaharias on the US PGA in 1945.

But in her latest tournaments against men, Wie finished last in the qualifying rounds at the Omega European Masters and the US PGA Lumber Classic, both in September. She bowed out of the second round of the PGA John Deere Classic with heat stroke in July.

”Honestly, there’s not a male or female in this world who can compete out here at that age,” US Ryder Cup squad member Scott Verplank said of Wie when she missed the cut at Lumber.

”If I was her adviser, I’d tell her to go kick all the ladies’ tails around for four years,” he said, ”and then if she wants to try again when she’s 20 or 21, and grown up more and maybe a better player, come on back.”

European Tour executive director George O’Grady has asked Omega not to issue any more sponsors’ invitations to Wie. He said Wie ”should not be put through that torture again”.

Wie, who turned professional a year ago with multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with Sony and Nike, has come close several times but is yet to win a US LPGA title.

She finished third at two majors, the Kraft Nabisco and the US Open, and fifth at the LPGA Championship this year.

”With golf and with everything, I want to try to have a normal life, and try to hopefully, you know, touch people’s lives, at least make one person smile a day,” she said. ”And I think that’s beautiful.” – Reuters

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