Growing up in South Africa, Gary Gilchrist watched first-hand the developing swings of such golf prodigies as Ernie Els and Reteif Goosen.
Gilchrist was something of a prodigy himself, spending two years on the South African national team.
Now, a couple of decades later, he has just watched one of the young golfers he coaches perform at the PGA Sony Open. Gilchrist can compare the young Els and Goosen to this youngster, and when he does he concludes this: At the same age, Michelle Wie is better.
"I've grown up and played with some of the best (men) in the world," Gilchrist said, "and she's better at her age now than they were."
Not comparatively better, for a girl. Not better potential. Just plain better.
Wie, at age 14, played in her first PGA Tour event in mid-January at the Sony Open in her home state of Hawaii. It's only appropriate that her first PGA Tour outing came in a tournament where Els is the defending champion. Wie is nicknamed "The Big Wiesy" because her perfectly smooth and balanced swing is so reminiscent of Els'.
Gilchrist, director of golf at the IMG/David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and Wie's coach, had modest expectations for Wie at the Sony. Suffice to say, she succeeded in every way. With two birdies on her final three holes, Wie's 2-under 68 left her one shot short of making the cut.
Even before the event, Gilchrist applauded her decision to accept a sponsors exemption and play.
"Michelle Wie is the poster girl for junior golf," Gilchrist said. "Because she's getting a lot of kids, especially girls, into the game of golf. It's not about trying to beat the men now. That's unrealistic. That's going to come.
"People say she should play the LPGA (Tour) first and beat the women, but her ultimate goal is to play 50 percent on the PGA Tour, 50 percent on the LPGA Tour. And if she wants to compete with the men, she better play with the men."
Wie has been doing just that over the past year, albeit on smaller stages. She attempted to qualify for the Sony Open in 2003, finishing 47th in a field of 97 in Monday qualifying with a round of 73. She placed 43rd in the Hawaii Pearl Open, a pro event in which all other competitors were men, and many of whom were regulars on the Japan Tour.
Later in 2003, she played in Canadian Tour and Nationwide Tour events. She missed the cut in both, but had respectable -- remember, she's 13 at this time -- showings: 74-79 on the Canadian and 78-76 on the Nationwide.
Her performances were much stronger, as would be expected, on the LPGA Tour, where she nearly got her first Tour win in a major.
Wie became the youngest player to make the cut in an LPGA event at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and played in the final group on Sunday alongside Annika Sorenstam and eventual winner Patricia Meunier-Lebouc.
Wie made the cut in five of the six LPGA Tour events she entered, plus the U.S. Women's Open.
And for good measure in 2003, she won the Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, the youngest-ever winner of the event.
Gilchrist, who has been with the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton for nearly 10 years, first hooked up with Wie in early 2002 during a visit to Hawaii.
"At 12 years old, she had the power and the finesse components that I have never seen on a kid like that before," Gilchrist said. "The driving range was 250 yards long and she was flying the fence."
Gilchrist met with the Wie family and signed on to be Michelle's coach. The Wies visit Gilchrist in Florida several times a year, sometimes staying at the Academy for weeks at a time. Gilchrist traveled with Wie throughout last summer, too.
During her most recent stay, Gilchrist was pleased to see the progress Wie has made since last year, especially in her putting. "She came down here a while ago and we played, three men and her, off the men's tees," Gilchrist said, "and she beat us. And she only had 24 putts."
The key, Gilchrist said, is having a round with 24 putts under pressure. And that's where playing in professional events -- whether against men or women -- will have its greatest benefit for Wie's development.
"The next three years is a learning process of going out there and playing with the best of the world," Gilchrist said. "What happens in their games and their mindset rubs off on you and you learn how to score. She's learning how to score. If she played at a lower level she could score, but she has to learn how to score at the highest level.
"If you want to be the best in the world at anything you do, you better hang around the best."
And if her game continues developing at the meteoric pace Wie has maintained for the past couple years? Gilchrist thinks Wie can be competitive in PGA Tour events perhaps as early as age 18. And that she might be regularly putting herself in a position to win on the LPGA Tour as early as age 16.
Or her first win on the LPGA Tour might come even earlier.
"If she putts like she putted the last time I played with her," Gilchrist said, "then she can win the next time she tees it up (on the LPGA)."
And the Sony Open? Gilchrist knows Wie will only prosper from the experience. The impact of Wie's participation for junior golf already makes her a winner.
January 19, 2004
Brent Kelley covers Texas, the Gulf Coast Region (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and West Florida) and Florida.
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