RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.» When you are 21, your sense of history can be condensed. But even Hawaii’s Michelle Wie, who has been playing the Kraft Nabisco Championship since she was 13, remembers watching on TV as winners jumped into the water at Mission Hills Country Club.
Before she set foot at Punahou and Stanford, Wie wanted to get wet in the desert.
Today, she tees off in the LPGA’s first major of the year for the seventh time. The Stanford senior still believes her time will come.
This is the 40th anniversary of the LPGA’s most cherished tournament. The U.S. Women’s Open title might be the most coveted, but that tournament moves each year. Kraft has been here on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course forever. Shore’s statue stands behind the 18th hole. The Wall of Champions, which extends from Jane Blalock in 1972 to Yani Tseng in 2010, is a warm reminder of what it takes to take the plunge in Poppi’s Pond.
The memories are vivid for any little girl with even a passing interest in golf.
KRAFT NABISCO CHAMPIONSHIP
“It’s as exciting this year as it was when I was 13,” said Wie, who played in the final group on the final day that first year in 2003.
“I think that it’s just an awesome golf course and golf tournament. It has so many famous winners, so many traditions, and it’s just one of those tournaments where you want to win. You know, it would mean the world to me if I could do that this week.”
This is a place she embraced as a child, but she has struggled here lately. Wie contended and finished in the top 15 her first four starts, but that hasn’t happened since 2006. She hasn’t had a top-10 finish at any major in nearly five years.
That is a lifetime for someone with Wie’s precociousness. The world’s ninth-ranked female golfer will play this afternoon and tomorrow morning with 10th-ranked Paula Creamer, another young and gifted American who craves this title, but has never finished better than 15th in an event that now promotes itself as “Witness Legendary.”
Karrie Webb, a Hall of Famer currently ranked eighth, has won here twice. The last came in 2006, when she holed out a wedge shot for eagle on the par-5 18th and beat Lorena Ochoa in a playoff. She calls that wedge “probably the highlight of my career.” Every time she walks the 18th, the memory gives her a chill.
Wie, over the 18th green in two shots that same year, nearly knew that feeling. She tried to make her eagle chip in 2006 for the outright win, barely missed, then didn’t make the birdie coming back and finished third. She would grab top-five finishes at the next two majors that year, before this major slide started. It is a slide she would love to end here, where she has always felt so comfortable.
“It’s one of those tournaments where you watch it on TV and the tradition … I knew long before I came here that jumping in the pond is what you want to do,” Wie said. “I think it’s one of those tournaments where you see the plaques on 18 about the past winners and it’s pretty cool, the traditions and the history here.”
Winning majors is motivation for her now, but winning here is motivation with a human face, drawn over 40 years of some of the finest memories in women’s sports.
» Michelle Wie is missing school this week. She will attend her first spring quarter at Stanford in an effort to graduate in March. She had been attending just the fall and winter quarters.
“I thought it was a good time to do it because I wanted to be done next March and then I’d be done for good,” she said. “I didn’t have to come back for another fall quarter. Plus, it’s spring quarter at Stanford, which is a lot of fun, too. I’m really excited to experience my first spring quarter where Stanford will actually be warm and sunny.”
» The temperature is some 40 degrees higher this week than it was last week at the Kia Classic, located about 100 miles west.
» Wie played with Seinfeld’s John O’Hurley in the two-day pro-am. O’Hurley is also one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” a game show host and a finalist of the first Dancing with the Stars. He plays on the Celebrity Golf Tour and has a single-digit handicap
» Former Kona resident Susie Berning, a teaching pro at The Reserve Club in nearby Indian Wells, will play in Saturday’s Fresh & Easy Dinah Shore Charity Pro-Am on the Arnold Palmer Course at Mission Hills. The three-time U.S. Women’s Open champ will join a field of LPGA legends and Hall of Famers, including Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Kathy Whitworth, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan.
» Wie set amateur Kraft Nabisco Championship records in 2004 for lowest 72-hole score (7-under 281), lowest 54-hole score (6-under 210) and lowest 36-hole score (3-under 141). She also had the best third-round score by an amateur, 66 in 2003. That year she became the youngest amateur to play here, at 13 years, 5 months and 17 days.
The 66 tied the record for lowest round by an amateur at any LPGA major.