When sportswriters aren’t beating dead horses or making Everests out of speed bumps, there’s nothing we enjoy more than comparing apples and oranges. Today’s Produce Department Special — I’m not sure who’s the McIntosh and who’s the Valencia — concerns Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie. The question being posed:
Might it be possible that Miss Wie, at 15, is a better golfer than Young Eldrick was at the same age?
I pose that question without qualification. I’m not asking whether Michelle might be a better golfer on a woman’s scale than Tiger was on a men’s scale. No, I’m asking whether, at this point, she might be the superior player, period.
There’s no way to definitively answer, of course, which is what makes the debate so entertaining. Before you Woods worshippers dismiss the notion out of hand, though, I’d like you to hear me out. Because the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Wie couldn’t have won more than a few skins off 15-year-old Tiger.
Believe it or not, you can compare the two … sort of. You can do it — thanks to Michelle’s adventurousness — by placing their performances in PGA Tour events side by side.
Wie so far has played in three tournaments and missed the cut in all three. But she came close twice — falling a stroke short in last year’s Sony Open (at 14) and two strokes short in the recent John Deere Classic.
Woods, we tend to forget, didn’t play in his first tour event until he was 16. And he didn’t make his first cut — in the ‘95 Masters — until he was 19. Before that, he was 0-for-7.
Only once, moreover, was he anywhere near the cut line. That was in the ‘94 Buick Classic, when his 75-70—145 effort left him a shot shy. His other attempts:
‘92 L.A. Open (72-75—147) — Missed cut by five.
‘93 L.A. Open (74-78—152) — Missed cut by seven.
‘93 Honda Classic (72-78—150) — Missed cut by five.
‘93 Byron Nelson (77-72—149) — Missed cut by eight.
‘94 Nestle Invitational (80-77—157) — Missed cut by 10.
‘94 Western Open (74-75—149) — Missed cut by five.
Note something else, too: In only one of those 14 rounds — Round 2 of the ‘94 Buick, when he was a grizzled 18 — did Tiger manage to break par. Wie, on the other hand, already had shot two subpar rounds — a 2-under 68 in the ‘04 Sony and a 1-under 70 in the John Deere.
Now, you can argue that, in some instances, Woods was competing against stronger fields and playing tougher courses, but you can’t give him a Total Free Pass. When he was shooting 13 over for 36 holes in the Nestle, Loren Roberts was winning with a score of 13 under. And when he was shooting 5 over for 36 holes at Riviera in ‘92, Fred Couples was winning with a score of 15 under. It wasn’t just the competition and the courses, in other words; it was also Tiger.
There certainly isn’t any basis for declaring him, at 15, in Another League from Wie, or even in another division. If anything, Wie, at this stage, has the upper hand because she’s competed against the big boys (and fared fairly well) — something Tiger didn’t do until he was a year older.
This week Wie, looking for a backdoor into the Masters, is trying to win the men’s Amateur Public Links (whose champion gets invited to Augusta). So far, so good. She qualified for the match-play phase of the event — despite some less than stellar ball striking, I grant you — and yesterday she beat recent Auburn grad Will Claxton 1-up to advance to the second round.
She’s still a long shot, sure, but not quite as long as she was at the beginning of the day. Not only did the 10th overall seed, Claxton, go down in her half of the bracket, but also the second (Rodney Hamblin Jr.), third (Sihwan Kim) and seventh (Ryan Spears) seeds. And get this: Her next opponent, C.D. Hockersmith of Richmond, Ind., was merely the third-best player at Ball State this spring.
The challenges Woods took on at this age weren’t nearly as grandiose. In the summer of ‘91, he tangled, appropriately, with 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds in the U.S. Junior Amateur. The Masters? Just a distant blip on his radar screen.
Tiger won that Junior Amateur, of course. He was a match-play machine in those days. But then, he only had to play Brad Zwetschke in the final.
Brad Zwetschke. No Michelle Wie, he.