Michelle Wie has been a fan favorite for years, so it should come as no surprise that the oddsmakers’ choice to come in second to Stacy Lewis at this week’s Women’s British Open had a particular community in Illinois especially psyched by her victory at the U.S. Women’s Open.
"It was great. I’m a fan of her as a person and as an athlete," Clair Peterson, tournament director of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic told SB Nation by phone on Tuesday about his reaction to Wie’s two-shot win over Lewis at Pinehurst. "There are so many people around town who talked to me about it and were equally excited for her."
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Wie may have prickled the sensitivities of some male players when she accepted a sponsor’s exemption to play in the 2005 John Deere Classic, but her presence and the Tiger Woods-like media and fan frenzy that accompanied the 15-year-old phenom to Silvas, Ill., absolutely tickled those running the event.
"It was fantastic. It was such an easy decision for us to invite her," Peterson said about the electrifying vibe and hordes of spectators that followed Wie’s every move around TPC at Deere Run. "Exemptions for us are defined by people not otherwise in the field who will provide excitement and put more people on the golf course.
"Check, check, and check," said Peterson, who knows a thing or two about running a tournament with burgeoning superstar talent in the field, since Woods made the then-Quad City Classic at Oakwood Country Club the sixth start of his 1996 rookie season. "There was just a swarm of huge crowds following her from hole to hole to hole."
The memories of Wie at Deere Run are vivid for Peterson, whose crew had to build a second media center to accommodate the mob of reporters hoping to witness the first woman to make a PGA Tour cut since Babe Zaharias accomplished the feat in 1945.
"That was something that was quantifiable, the number of extra people on the course, the number of extra media, the number of stories that were generated," Peterson recalled.
Alas, Wie, who opened with a 1-under 70, was not around for the weekend but Peterson likened the energy midway through her second round to the electricity that Tiger could spark on any given Sunday.
"She birdied her ninth hole of the day, No. 18, on Friday and that entire hillside was like it would be on Sunday on the 72nd hole," Peterson said. "It was full of people. When she hit it to within two feet, the roar, the walk up to the green, the ovation from the sky boxes was just like a champion walking down the last hole on Sunday.
"It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up," he said.
After her triumph on the 18th, Wie ran into trouble on her back nine. A shot north of the cut line with four holes to play, Wie double-bogeyed the par-5 16th and went on to miss the cut by those two extra strokes.
Even with the outcome, Wie appreciated the outpouring of support.
"It was awesome, them cheering for me like that," she said after her second and final round. "I thought I was going deaf it was so loud. I mean, it was awesome. It was such a wonderful feeling."
Now 24, Wie will go after her second straight major title starting Thursday at Royal Birkdale as 2012 John Deere winner and her ’05 pro-am playing partner Zach Johnson and the rest of the field take their whacks at Deere Run. It’s somewhat astounding to consider that the Stanford graduate was barely in her teens and already ruffling a few male and female feathers by playing with the boys before earning her LPGA bones when she accepted Peterson’s invitation to her third tour contest.
"In the long run, I do want to play out here," said Wie, who missed the cuts in the 2004 and 2005 Sony Opens, ahead of her ’05 Deere start. "It's very exciting, and ever since I was very young, I wanted to play with the guys."
Though Wie again failed to make it to the weekend at this event and posted a first-round 77 and then withdrew after nine holes into her second round in 2006 due to heat exhaustion, Peterson has had no regrets about offering the prodigy a tee time.
"Never. It never crossed my mind," Peterson said. "We’ve always felt it’s part of our history, a proud part of our history. We’ve got a theme, ‘Magic happens here,’ and that was a magical chapter in our history."