- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

Michelle Wie is 36 holes away from authoring gender-bending history.

The 16-year-old female phenom has the ultimate date with destiny today at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., as she attempts to become the first woman in history to qualify for a men’s major golf championship.

Wie is among the 153 players who will tee off at Canoe Brook today in a 36-hole USGA sectional qualifier. The top 18 finishers at Canoe Brook will advance to the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., to compete next week in the 106th U.S. Open.

If the 6-foot-1 Hawaiian sensation posts one of the day’s 18 best scores, next week’s Open won’t be her first foray into the men’s game. Wie has played in eight events on five different men’s professional tours in the past three years, making her first cut exactly a month ago today when she became the first woman to play the weekend on the Asian Tour (finishing tied for 35th at the SK Telecom Open after rounds of 70-69-74).

But unlike those starts, which all came via sponsor’s exemption and engendered a certain amount of bitterness among male and female touring pros, today’s qualifier offers Wie the opportunity to unassailably earn her trip to next week’s Open.

Though a number of the world’s most high-profile players are exempt from qualifying, anybody with a handicap index of 1.4 or better can enter the U.S. Open. The USGA accepted more than 9,000 entries this year. After 111 local qualifiers (Wie was the medalist amid a field of 40 players at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu on May 15), the number of nonexempt hopefuls has been trimmed to a little more than 800. Sectional qualifying across the country today and tomorrow (Canoe Brook is one of 15 sites) will determine the remainder of next week’s 156-player field.

If Wie plays her way into the Open through 54 holes and two stages of qualifying, nobody can say a word about her right to tee it up among the men at Winged Foot.

“I always felt if anybody had golf clubs and was able to qualify and eligible to play in a golf tournament, they can certainly tee it up,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week at his Memorial Tournament. “I don’t care if that’s a man, woman or child.

“If Michelle Wie has the desire to come play and she has the ability to qualify for the U.S. Open, fantastic. I think it would be wonderful for the game of golf. … If she can qualify, I’m going to root for her 100 percent.”

Of course, earning one of those coveted 18 spots at Canoe Brook today will require the greatest performance of Wie’s career. The North (7,066 yards, par-72) and South (6,691 yards, par-70) courses at the traditional, old club don’t particularly favor her game. Though both are short by PGA Tour and Wie standards (she hit a 327-yard drive during Thursday’s practice round on the North), they are also tight, and they feature small, severe greens. Accuracy off the tee — Wie tends to pull the ball — and putting are her notable weaknesses.

And there’s not much fodder in the assembled field, a group highlighted by major champions Mark O’Meara, Bernhard Langer and Mark Brooks. Among the 153 competitors are 46 PGA Tour regulars, 19 players with PGA Tour victories and 14 men who have qualified for the Open before at Canoe Brook in 2004 or 2005.

Using those two previous qualifiers as a guide, Wie’s target score would appear to be 140. That score qualified outright last year and made it into a playoff in 2004, when the size of the field and available slots were similar (138 players for 22 spots).

Such a score certainly isn’t a stretch for Wie, who has twice posted 68s in the Sony Open (2004 and 2006) as the only woman ever to break 70 in a PGA Tour event. In fact, Wie’s scoring average in her last five rounds on men’s tours is 70.6, putting her just a stroke off today’s projected qualifying pace.

But it’s unlikely she’s ever experienced the kind of chaos and pressure she’s going to feel today; the Metropolitan Golf Association, which is co-hosting and running the event for the USGA, has been contacted by more than 250 media outlets — only a major attracts more — and has erected a media center specifically for the one-day event. Combined with that outrageous spotlight stress, Wie’s spotty record in men’s events (73.24 stroke average and one made cut in eight starts) makes success in today’s qualifier a long shot.

But if she should somehow manage to qualify, the achievement would certainly rank as one of the most remarkable in the history of any sport, much less golf. In many ways, the stunning feats of Tiger Woods have cauterized the incredulity receptors of golf fans. But not even a jaded golf public could fail to appreciate the epic magnitude of a 16-year-old girl, a mere junior in high school, playing her way into the U.S. Open. It wouldn’t just resonate as a Billy Jean King-dwarfing example of the sexual revolution in sports; it would undoubtedly make Wie one of the most celebrated and recognizable women in the world.

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