Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Life Under the Microscope May Have Cost Wie Her First LPGA Purse

Being hot, young and talented doesn't always promise smooth sailing, as phenom golfer Michelle Wie discovered this past weekend at the Samsung World Championship, where the 16-year-old was making her professional debut. Thanks to the bizarre involvement of Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Bamberger, Wie was disqualified from the tournament, even after completing her final round, for something she apparently did on the third round. The disqualification cost Wie over $50,000 in what would have been her first earnings as a pro.

In certain sacrosanct golf circles, Bamberger will probably be applauded for his actions. He alerted LPGA officials to Wie's Saturday actions on the 7th hole of the Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif. Wie's ball lodged in a bush and she took an unplayable lie after informing her partner Grace Park. Wie made her drop, chipped onto the green, and converted a 15-foot putt for par, then went on to complete a round of 71. She completed a final round of 74 on Sunday, to finish fourth in the tourney, and presumably grab prize money worth $53,126. Not bad for a kid—and a strikingly attractive, supple-legged, stylish and statuesque Hawaiian American kid at that.

Enter SI's Bamberger, who apparently watched Wei's Saturday round with skepticism. Not until Sunday did he raise concerns about Wei's third-round, 7th hole drop. Things get weird from here on in. LPGA officials listened to Bamberger, who accused Wei of actually moving her ball toward the hole (a big no-no). However, upon reviewing NBC Sports videotape, the officials found nothing conclusive to impune Wei's actions. Why the controvery didn't stop there remains a controversy unto itself. Instead, the LPGA's Robert I. Smith insisted that Wei and her caddy, Greg Johnston, accompany him out to the 7th hole for a reenactment of her drop. Wei showed Smith the how, what and where, and armed with a piece of string for measuring distance, the official concluded that Wei had indeed moved the ball toward the hole, apparently somewhere in the 3-to-12-inch range. Thus, the scorecard she signed for that day was now deemed incorrect, and the teenager was disqualified from the match. No $50K maiden purse, no fourth-place finish—but now plenty of ignominy.

I have questions and suppositions. If Smith looked at the tape and judged it to be inconclusive, why did he bother to go the extra mile to find the utter truth about a matter of inches? If Bamberger knew what he suspected on Saturday, why did he wait until Sunday to make his accusation? Moreover, why did he wait until Wei had completed her Sunday round, when he might've brought things up Sunday morning? And since when did the LPGA imbue such powers in reporters, even after NBC's own tape footage showed nothing discernibly awry?

It's not that I'm not for the rules, because we all know how golf feels about that. But let's suppose that instead of a well-publicized, bangly-earringed 16-year-old female at that 7th hole, we had a frumpy, mannish, sensibly attired, late-blooming 38-year-old female rookie making that drop. Would Michael Bamberger have cared? Would he have been scrutinizing her, looking for a chink in her armor? Would he have bothered to say anything to the officials? If so, would the officials have cared? Would they have been satisfied that TV video showed nothing untoward? Would they have taken her and her caddy out to the hole the next day with a measuring string?

No one's justifying anything here. But this appears to be one situation where being young, attractive and extraordinarily gifted, as Wei clearly is, actually backfired. Those of us who are pretty much average in every way might smirk and feel that it's about time that the "beautiful people"—whether it be Wei, or Angelina Jolie, or Tom Cruise, or whoever—get their comeuppance, lavished with praise, publicity and enormous sums of money as they otherwise usually are. But somehow I'm not smirking.

I'm not really sure if Wei got shafted, but I do know that she clearly paid for her celebrity. Bamberger's own actions look excessive, if not obsessive. One wonders if he would've ratted out Annika Sorenstam. One wonders whether LPGA officials would have listened to him if he'd tried.

Let's assure that this doesn't ever happen again—to anybody. Surely the golf organizations can station an official near the green of every hole at every tournament. When unplayable lies happen, the official can be easily called over by the player or caddy, and can supervise the drop. Sometimes you see this happen, but why isn't it happening in every instance? Let's take the guesswork out of this situation, and not lay all the responsibility at the feet of the game's ritualistic regard for rules and the honor system, which obviously might have flaws. I still think Arnold Palmer got away with murder at the 1958 Masters, though that controversy is never allowed to become fodder for polite discussion. Arnie, especially, won't talk about it.

Maybe somewhere Michael Bamberger is a hero to somebody. To me, he sorta looks like a jerk.

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