Michelle Wie mania defies tradition in Newport, R.I.

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

On the lawn bigger than a football field, outside the house grander than most state capitols, they're talking golf. Nothing remarkable there. The game's long been the province of the blue bloods of American society and their want-to-be followers.

Only this isn't the usual have-you-played-there, top-that and did-you-see-what-Tiger-Woods-did chit chat of the idle rich.

No, they're talking women's golf. About a 15-year-old Asian-American golfer to be exact.

"Do you think she'll drive No. 11 in one?" Arnold Garrison asked one of his friends, noting that the par 4 at Newport Country Club plays at only 298 yards from the back tees for members, though it will be likely lengthened for Wie.

"She could easy," Paul Sandermann replied. "She hits it over 300, you know."

This is when you know the Michelle Wie mystique has hit overdrive. When Wie's the talk of Newport, a town as old money as tobacco plantations, the world of golf is changing. Quicker than a bum would be swept off Newport's sea side streets.

The U.S. Women's Open is headed to Newport in June 2006 and it's apparent that it's shifting the way many in this stiff, staid community view golf. All because of Wie.

A U.S. Women's Open in Newport probably wouldn't have caused much fuss in the days before Wie. This town came into prominence as the summer vacation spot of choice for America's wealthiest families in the late 1800s and early 1900s and despite all the tourist-trap souvenir shops on the docks now, it hasn't changed in attitude all that much since the days the Vanderbilts graced the society pages. Old money and old ways have long ruled.

The best restaurants in Newport still have waiters in top coats serving dishes on traditional old china. The hulking historic mansions on Bellevue Avenue are open for tourist walking tours, but their more modern counterparts are only a few back streets away and just as imposing and closed off as the old barons' palaces used to be. Private property signs, long gates and towering hedges are the rule of the day.

"To be honest, I never expected to see a U.S. Women's Open in Newport," said regular visitor Paul Hag. "You don't expect to see that kind of thing in this town. And you really don't think people are going to be this excited about it.

"Michelle Wie's made the big difference there."

Even though it's almost a year away, the U.S. Women's Open is never far from the mind in Newport. In no small part because it's impossible to escape the signs. The Open advertisements are everywhere, on the back of buses, on the sides of buildings in tourist central, up on billboards that greet as you leave or enter town.

Hag stared at one such ad in amusement.

"Where's Michelle Wie?" he asked.

Yes, the biggest reason for all this fuss is not included in the advertising blitz. With Wie still holding onto her amateur status, she's not used in any United States Golf Association promotions. Instead, the signs tout Annika Sorenstam, Grace Park and even virtually forgotten oldies Meg Mallon and Juli Inkster. So Wie is unseen, but definitely not unspoken about in Newport.

Around the U.S. Women's Open shop and its eye-catching blue awning on Long Wharf street, Wie draws even more comments than the $25 million yachts anchored up the road. And these aren't just little girls like eight-year-old Emily Burke telling her parents, "We have to go watch Michelle!" It's also the salt-and-pepper haired set like Ron and Judy Cournoyer and their friends Mike and Joan Simmons.

The Cournoyers and the Simmons have lived in the Newport area for years and they're thinking of volunteering to work at the Open to feel some of the excitement of the event. They're all golfers. But it's a certain girl golfer who can mash drives close to 300 yards that has their focus, too.

"(The Open) is going to bring a lot of attention to Newport," said Judy Cournoyer, a 2-handicap. "But mostly I think people are excited because they know Michelle Wie is going to be here."

"If it was just Annika, it'd be nice," Mike Simmons added. "But because it's Michelle Wie, it's a different level. As good as Annika is, she doesn't get people talking as much as Michelle Wie."

Soon a near debate on Wie and the state of women's golf was breaking out on the streets of Newport.

"You know, she's probably going to be playing on the men's tour full-time one day," Hag said. "Better catch her playing the women while you can."

Others shook their head. Nobody noticed the woman with the beehive hair walking past with a poodle decked out in a tastefully diamond encrusted collar.

Michelle Wie is coming to Newport. Things are already starting to feel a little different.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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