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June 17, 2014

3 young stars take aim at US Women’s Open

It’s the women’s turn at Pinehurst No. 2 and Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and Michelle Wie are golfers who could have the galleries buzzing and contend for the title in the US Women’s Open.

The U.S. Open has been played, and the guys have stepped aside. Now, it’s the women’s turn on Pinehurst No. 2.

After months of speculation and some consternation about back-to-back Opens, and questions of why not “ladies first,” the Women’s U.S. Open will begin Thursday. There’s a championship to be decided and an Open trophy to be clutched come Sunday.

Stacy Lewis is the No. 1 ranked player in the world, and the former No. 1, Inbee Park, is the defending Open champion and coming off an impressive LPGA victory in her last start, with a final-round 61. But a lot of attention this year has gone to three players who represent a blend of the past, present and future of women’s golf.

Lexi Thompson has the power. Lydia Ko has the swing. Michelle Wie has the star power and also a back-to-the-future feel about her.

Thompson won the year’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco. Ko won everything as an amateur and is seeking her first professional major at 17. Wie, the oldest at 24, is a tournament winner again, and an Open title would further fuel her ascension and stamp her for greatness.

It’s some threesome. It’s the Women’s U.S. Open. Pinehurst No. 2 awaits.

Can’t be touched

If there were such a thing as a walk-up song for LPGA golfers, Lexi Thompson says hers would be “Can’t Be Touched” by Roy Jones Jr.

An interesting choice and a fitting title. There have been times this year when Thompson couldn’t be touched on the course.

She won the Kraft Nabisco, a major. She’s fourth on the money list and sixth in the Rolex world rankings. She leads the LPGA in driving distance and is third in scoring average.

At 19.

“When she’s comfortable on a golf course, she’s firing on all cylinders,” Lewis said. “At 18, 19 years old, I was never in that place.”

Or going at the same pace. Thompson’s life appears to be a blur of tightly scheduled events: personal appearances, clinics, Skyped interviews, practices with golf instructor Jim McLean, tournaments, travel.

Like most teenagers, there always is time for texts and tweets – “Pretty excited I’m home now and get to sleep in my own bed for two nights,” she tweeted May 26 – and some selfies on Instagram. But she stays on the move.

Recently, Thompson traveled to Germany for a Puma commercial with Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt that will be released during August.

“Oh, it was a quick trip,” she said.

How quick?

“Two days, five flights,” she said, smiling. “It was worth it.”

It is, after all, the lifestyle she wanted. It was seven years ago, at the 2007 Women’s U.S. Open, that 12-year-old Alexis Thompson of Coral Springs, Fla., first aspired to be a professional golfer and play with the best.

Then the youngest to qualify for the Women’s U.S. Open, Thompson was a bit awestruck by her surroundings at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines. Being around Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Lorena Ochoa and others was nerve-racking and inspiring, she said.

“It was such a great experience, just being there and seeing the players I looked up to,” Thompson said. “I’d say that’s when I knew I wanted to play on the LPGA Tour. It was a dream come true because I realized that’s where I wanted to be.”

Thompson said she quickly set goals: get stronger and get longer, sharpen her short game, learn how to handle her nerves. As she later put it, she became “addicted to getting better.”

Thompson turned pro at 15, signing endorsement deals with Puma, Cobra and Red Bull. At 16, she became the youngest to win an LPGA event, the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic. During September 2011, the LPGA approved her request to become a member of the tour.

Thompson won twice in 2013, finishing sixth in money with more than $1.2 million, and she was a member of the U.S. Solheim Cup team. It has been a rapid rise.

Rickie Fowler is Puma’s most high-profile golf client with his bright color schemes and a youthful personality to match. But Fowler’s play can’t match what Thompson has accomplished so quickly.

In the Kraft Nabisco, Thompson outdueled Wie during the final round, shooting a bogey-free 68, bombing tee shots, winning by three shots.

“Lexi was amazing,” Wie said. “She hit the ball the best I’ve ever seen her.”

It has helped that Thompson has two older brothers who play, who pushed her. Nicholas Thompson, called “Nico” by his sister, now is on the PGA Tour and Curtis Thompson is a rising senior at Louisiana State and two-time All-SEC selection.

Lexi said Curtis might be the best golfer of the bunch, saying, “He has so much talent it’s ridiculous.”

But there’s no denying Lexi Thompson has become the family star. Neither Nicholas nor Curtis qualified to play in the U.S. Open this year, as Lexi had hoped. Instead, they’ll again be in the role of urging her on, trying to push her toward a second major title.

“I’ve known her since she was 7 or 8 competing in South Florida tournaments,” said Morgan Pressel, a former Kraft Nabisco champion. “She was a world-beater then and it’s not surprising she’s playing so well now.”

World-beater. Sounds like a good name for a walk-up song.

LPGA’s version of Tiger

There always has been a fascination about Michelle Wie.

Something about her look, tall and slender, photogenic, athletic, almost regally feline. Something about her golf game, its power and potential.

Few ever doubted her innate talent with a golf club.

“Ten years ago I would have thought she’d be the best player in the world,” said Australia’s Karrie Webb, whose seven major titles include two Women’s U.S. Opens.

That Wie hasn’t, that she has fallen and now risen again, adds even appeal to who she is and what she can become.

Wie is just 24. There’s so much golf still to be played, a career still to be defined.

Many in the gallery will flock to see her at Pinehurst No. 2 this week. And why not? She is playing some of her best golf, is No. 11 in the Rolex World Golf Rankings. She’s a winner on the LPGA Tour again and part of a strong pushback this year by U.S.-born golfers such as Lewis, Thompson, Paula Creamer and Jessica Korda.

“She has a Tiger-effect to her,” Lewis said. “You ask people who don’t know much about golf and they know who Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie are. It’s a testament to her and her ability to play.

“When she’s playing well, it’s good for everybody on this tour. Michelle is really coming into her own.”

Wie would like to make the Women’s U.S. Open her first major title. It also could provide some redemption for her last Open in the North Carolina Sandhills.

In 2007, when the Open was at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club, Wie left the course in tears. She withdrew after nine holes of the second round, citing a wrist injury.

Six-over par for the round, 17 over for the tournament, Wie told her playing partners, “I’m done.”

Wie meant done for the Open, but her career clearly was at a standstill. She was 17. Golf was not being kind to the wunderkind.

Wie played her first LPGA event during 2002, at age 12, and turned pro in October 2005. That was a year after she competed in the Sony Open, a PGA Tour event in her native Hawaii, and missed the cut by a shot.

Wie contended in majors during 2006. She was ranked as high as third in the world, was making millions in endorsements and attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open against the men.

But the 2007 Women’s U.S. Open was a low point. Perhaps the low point.

And then she went to college.

Her years at Stanford, being a student, making new friends, making her own decisions, gave her a new foundation, new perspective.

“It’s so important, going to college and that growing up that you do,” said Donna Andrews, a former LPGA pro who played at North Carolina. “People don’t get how much that plays into being able to control your emotions and stuff on the golf course. I think that’s what you’re finally seeing with Michelle.”

Andrews remembers a tournament years ago when she was paired with Laura Davies in the group ahead of Wie.

“Laura was watching where Michelle was hitting it and going, ‘Why did she hit it there? Why did she hit it there?’ ” Andrews recalled. “I would go, ‘Because she can? She’s 16 and she can.’

“To watch her now, I think she’s developed so much mentally than when she was a teenager. Her course management is so much better.”

Wie calls golf a “finicky game” and said patience has been a must as she sought to re-establish herself on tour. She won the 2010 Canadian Women’s Open, but her third career victory, in this year’s LPGA Lotte Championship, was more fulfilling.

It came in Hawaii, in Kapolei. It came with a final-round 67, fashioned in 20 mph trade winds. It also came two weeks after she was the runner-up to Thompson in the Kraft Nabisco.

“It was so much fun, one of the most special moments of my life,” Wie said.

How did she celebrate? By hosting a charity ping-pong tournament in Honolulu to help fund college scholarships.

Wie’s funky putting style has been panned by some. She hunches over as if kicked in the solar plexus, head down over the ball.

“Everyone made fun or her putting style and even I was one, but it’s really working for her,” Webb said. “She’s definitely back on track.”

On Wie’s Twitter account (@themichellewie) she writes: “Hey! I am a professional golfer following her dreams. I love to laugh, love, eat, and live life to the fullest.”

For now, golf, and life, is all that.

“I’m not as wide-eyed as I used to be,” Wie said. “I’m really happy where I am.”

Kid with champion’s future

Lydia Ko says she was a bit startled recently when she first spotted the Time magazine at a Publix supermarket.

There she was, listed among Time’s “100 Most Influential People.”

“I saw it and it was, ‘Oh, that’s me,’ ” she said. “I was really surprised. I kind of thought to myself, ‘What did I do to be in the top 100?’ ”

The top 100 selections were made April 24. That also happened to be Ko’s 17th birthday.

“Perfect timing,” Ko said, smiling.

But so much about her young career has been perfect so far. The teenager from Auckland, New Zealand, is ranked third in the world and can’t be overlooked this week in the Women’s U.S. Open.

Ko became the youngest winner in LPGA history when she captured the 2012 Canadian Women’s Open – the first amateur to win a tour event since 1967, and then the only amateur to win twice when she defended her Canadian Open title last year. Turning pro last October after a runner-up finish to veteran Suzann Pettersen in The Evian Championship in France, she won in Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, and has added her third LPGA victory this year as a rookie.

“Everything has happened really fast, especially the last year,” Ko said. “But it’s definitely going the right way. I’m excited about that.

“I’ve been trying to have some fun, which is different to when I was playing as an amateur. I do feel a little more pressure, feeling like there is more on the line. But I’m just trying to have fun.”

Golf instructors can’t find a flaw in her swing. Her fellow pros all seem to like her and aren’t begrudgingly envious of her instant success.

“She’s just an all-around great golfer,” Pettersen said. “She’s got a great head. Very humble player. She’s very well-liked out on tour.

“She goes about her business in her own way, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Ko is taking the time to enjoy the ride. There is no tunnel vision, no golf-all-the-time approach.

“She works hard but she’s a kid,” said Pressel, who turned pro at age 17 in 2005. “You see her play and her game is so mature. Then you talk to her and say, ‘She’s still a kid, she acts like a kid,’ and it’s cool. She’s not trying to be something she isn’t.”

Going to San Francisco in April, Ko toured Alcatraz Island and ate her fill of Dungeness crab, saying, “I think that’s a must when you’re there.” A camera enthusiast, she eagerly played the role of Bay Area tourist.

And then she won the golf tournament.

Ko held off Lewis for a one-shot victory in the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic at Lake Merced Golf Club. Her parents were there – a rare U.S. visit for her father, she said.

“I feel very confident about my game,” Ko said. “Being confident is great, but I don’t want to be overconfident.”

Nor does she boast about her lofty world ranking. Her victory bumped her up to No. 2, but she has slipped to third.

Ko, whose horn-rim glasses give her a studious look, was the top-ranked women’s amateur in the world for 130 weeks. That’s Tiger stuff. There’s no reason to believe she can’t be No. 1 among the pros at some point.

“I just feel like another golfer out there to play some golf,” Ko said. “Hopefully one day I’ll be able to become world No. 1, (but) I don’t know if that might happen or not.

“I don’t like to think about rankings and things. I just try to think about the tournament and try to get a good performance. When I try to think about the result before it happens, it doesn’t go as well as I would like. I just want to pace myself and enjoy it.”

Ko was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved with her family to New Zealand when she was 7. She was 8 when a Kiwi, Michael Campbell, won the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

Campbell surprised a lot of people, including himself, that week. For Ko, it would be just the next thing for golf’s “Next Big Thing.”

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