April 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Jerry Green: One-time golf prodigy Michelle Wie still striving for breakthrough

Michelle Wie was heralded as the female Tiger Woods back in 2003. She has yet to win an LPGA major. (Scott Halleran / Getty Images)

Rancho Mirage, Calif. — She was 13 and the rush had started. They dragged Michelle Wie into the interview room to be grilled by a gaggle of grown-up, nosy journalists. Momma and Poppa insisted. It might have been a frightening experience, but she wasn’t frightened.

She handled the situation that hot, humid, gray day at Inverness in Toledo in the summer of 2003; she handled it better than any other teenaged kid might have thrown into a pressurized mixture.

Of course, she did not win that tournament in competition with mostly mature, experienced touring women golf professionals. And she has not won many tournaments since — although now she is the most famed of the veteran professional women on the LPGA Tour.

“I think when you’re younger you’re kind of fearless,” she said the other day before another room full of craggy sports journalists at the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club

Now, well, a mature 24. Michelle Wie admits to fear.

“I think failure,” she said. That’s what scares her.

“I think just not doing well. Just kind of letting myself down and you just have to kind of go out there and accept that you’re nervous.

“But just go out there and do everything you need to do.”

Promise unfulfilled

Michelle Wie is 0-for-36 in the LPGA majors since she first appeared as the precocious 13-year-old right here at Mission Hills in the Kraft Nabisco in 2003. That year, as an amateur, she shot a 66 in the third round. And she has been the top attraction in women’s golf ever since — despite what she calls failures. Featured in the final group after the 66, a contender in that 2003 Kraft Nabisco, she was cheered by the crowd; but she finished in a tie for ninth.

She finished fourth in the tournament at Mission Hills in 2004, and tied for third in 2006 — still a teenager.

Her record in majors is dismal — second place once in the LPGA Championship. And never close since.

She has actually won just twice in non-major LPGA tour events. Her last victory was nearly four years ago, in the CN Canadian Championship.

Never a genuine breakthrough despite the glowing praise, despite the raves, despite the stardom, despite the money. Never what had been predicted for her when she was 13.

But now in the 2014 Kraft Nabisco she has a shot — among the contenders to win Sunday, at last, a major championship. She enters Sunday’s final round tied for the lead with Lexi Thompson.

And no matter what, she is the star of the LPGA.

Women’s golf is the rare sport in which teenagers are able to excel. Thompson, barely 19, was a co-leader after the second round. Morgan Pressel, with Michigan heritage, won the Kraft Nabisco seven years ago when she was 18.

The other day a 15-year-old California amateur, Angel Lin, a high-school freshman, shot a 4-under-68 to rank among the first-round leaders.

Then she left veteran golf journalists agog by saying she would be embarrassed to meet Michelle Wie.

“If she sat next to me and said ‘Hi’ to me, I’d probably run,” Angel Yin told these grumpy reporters. “Yeah.”

Later, when the story was repeated to Michelle Wie, she showed amusement — and a reflection of her travails as a teenager on the tour.

“I think I was starstruck a lot of times,” she said.

“You know, my first time here I was so excited about, like, the whole food area. That’s really all I cared about when I got here.

“But out on the range, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and hitting behind Meg Mallon and hitting and hitting behind Beth Daniel. She kind of scared me a little when I first came out here.

When she was a 13-year-old, she captivated the galleries here. And that Sunday 11 years ago remains her precious memory.

“I think it was just a walk down 18 when I was 13,” she said. “Was it when I was 13?

“I think just walking down there, teeing off in the last group, people clapping, standing up. It was amazing.”

Trying to escape

There has been a growing process for Michelle. First she had to break the over-ambitious rush forced upon her by her doting parents. She was pushed into tournaments with PGA men, and it was an embarrassment. She was over-publicized. She was rushed.

Too fast, I recall thinking that afternoon in 2003 at Inverness in Toledo.

She grew into a statuesque young woman at 6 feet 1. She powers a golf ball. She is an artist, her paintings quite lovely.

To her credit, she mixed playing on the tour while emphasizing her university education. Not all these kid golfers do. Michelle graduated two years ago from Stanford. She has earned millions in golf money and endorsements.

But still she cannot escape those nagging words — “failure” and “frustrating.”

And the past four years without a championship in any LPGA event have been full of frustrations and failures.

But this year, again, in her five tournaments so far she has been a contender.

“I really wanted to do well,” she told us here. “I was working hard at it. Just wasn’t getting any better.

“It was frustrating, very frustrating.

“. . . Love-hate relationship with it. Love it one moment, hate it the other.

“But I am lucky.”

Then:

“I really believe that the mistakes you make, the failures that you go through really make you the person that you are now.

In another moment, she said, “Really feeling like I’m almost becoming a little bit of a golf nerd.”

Now maybe this year, maybe at Mission Hills, the breakthrough. If not soon — escape from the failure, escape from the frustration.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com

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