The third-round leader board at the U.S. Women's Open was overrun with American kids who seemed unaware that the championship is won by seasoned veterans. (Two of the previous three champs had been in their 40s.) Tied for the lead were two amateurs, Morgan Pressel, 17, and 15-year-old Michelle Wie (right), and one stroke behind them was 18-year-old Paula Creamer. Brittany Lang, 19, was four back. So it didn't come as a complete shock when Creamer started her final round with a double bogey and went on to shoot a 79, or when Wie also put up a 6 on No. 1 en route to an 82. Wie made her first birdie on the 11th hole, when she was eight over for the day. "I felt if I died right there, I'd die happy," she said. "But I had to play the next couple of holes, and it went downhill from there."
Nonetheless, Wie's free fall was must-see TV. NBC's ratings for Sunday were up 68% from last year. And those viewers weren't tuning in to watch Annika Sorenstam pursue a Grand Slam; the Swede was not a factor on the weekend. They were tuning in to watch what was ultimately a learning experience for a quartet that is the future of women's golf.
And the future is almost here. Wie demonstrated just how complete her game has become at Cherry Hills, rarely relying on her driver. The only thing she hasn't shown she can do is close the deal--something that's not a problem for Creamer and Pressel. Unlike Wie, who has already played on the PGA, LPGA and Nationwide tours, they spent their early years playing against--and learning to outduel--their peers. On Sunday it was Pressel whose nerves held up; she was tied for the lead until South Korea's Birdie Kim won the tournament by holing a bunker shot on 18, leaving Pressel tied for second with Lang. Pressel is planning to attend Duke--where Lang went before turning pro after the Open--in 2006 but hasn't ruled out the LPGA. One person close to Wie told SI that should she win a tournament, "it's 99 percent" that she'd turn pro. That would mean more pressure on Sorenstam, which suits her fine. "That's the new generation," she said on Sunday. "We should welcome them all and say, Hey, that's good for golf."•
THREE COLOR PHOTOS
DARREN CARROLL (3)
Pressel (below, left) and Lang were strong, while Creamer (above) faltered.