Sunday, March 26, 2017

Randall's Rant: Wie still the LPGA's biggest star

If Michelle Wie had Inbee Park’s putting touch and a less brittle body, the women’s game would surge to a new level of popularity.

For all her critics, and she has a load of them, Wie still has a huge, loyal following. No player in the women’s game elicits stronger feelings when in contention, or evokes more curiosity when her name hits a leaderboard. We were reminded of that in Singapore.

Yes, Wie may get as many viewers tuning in to see her fail as see her succeed, but more are going to watch.

Like it or not, Wie is still the LPGA’s most compelling figure.

Yeah, I can hear all you cursing me out now, but Wie’s rise to the top of the leaderboard through 54 holes at the HSBC Women’s Champions held more potential to help the LPGA reach outside its fan base than any other possible outcome. (Cheyenne Woods has that, too, but she wasn’t playing and isn’t nearly as decorated a player.)

Park put on a tour-de-force performance winning in Singapore. From her stellar ball striking to her phenomenal putting, Park looked like a Hall of Famer poised to make more history.

Park is a treasure, underappreciated for her skill and for her thoughtful opinions within the game. Lydia Ko is saintly, with as strong a mind as a heart. Ariya Jutanugarn is a machine, a spectacle with her gifts of power and touch.

Nobody, though, would have generated more headlines outside the golf niche with a victory Sunday than Wie.

How many were staying up late just to see if Wie could resurrect all the hype that followed her emergence as a teen phenom and was later rekindled when she won the U.S. Women’s Open? How many fans turned off their TV sets when Wie four-putted the fifth hole in the final round in Singapore?

The rise of young stars like Ko, Jutanugarn, Lexi Thompson, In Gee Chun, Brooke Henderson and Ha Na Jang have helped LPGA commissioner Mike Whan take the LPGA to another level internationally.

Whan has the tour right there on another potential golden age, but the sport’s still lacking the one quality that will take it to a new stratosphere. It’s lacking a bona-fide superstar who breaks out of the golf niche. It’s lacking a Serena Williams, a dominant figure sports fans can’t take their eyes off inside or outside the ropes.

Commissioners can’t design or orchestrate an asset like that. It falls in their laps.

Wie may have turned a corner in Singapore, finding a reliable swing and a better putting stroke, but at 27 we still aren’t sure what she’s got left. We aren’t sure she can overcome the glitches that pop up in her putting stroke, the tinkering that robs consistency.

After missing the cut or withdrawing from 14 of her last 27 events heading to the HSBC Women’s Champions, Wie looks like she’s at least found her way out of the wilderness. She has some confidence coming back to her, and that isn’t just good for her; it’s good for the game.

Given Wie’s injury history, her slumps and inconsistency, it is difficult to imagine her ever getting to No. 1, especially with all the young talent piling up in front of her. It is difficult imagining her sustaining a level of excellence over the time required to get to No. 1.

It’s not difficult, however, to imagine her winning another major. It’s not difficult to imagine her reaching the peaks in short bursts that are required to do that. If she could putt well enough to win a U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst three years ago, there’s no reason she can’t do it again in other majors.

Win or lose, it’s good for the LPGA when Wie’s got a fighting chance.

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