BILL DWYRE

Veteran wants to put the 'Wi' in winner at Riviera

Charlie Wi is off to solid start in 2013, but at 41, he's still looking for his first PGA Tour victory. The Northern Trust Open would be perfect for the Westlake Village resident.

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Charlie Wi has had enough of being a bridesmaid. He wants to get the toast, not give it, at the big banquet.

It's not that he hasn't had success on the American pro golf tour. This is his eighth season and his bank account shows $9.1 million for his efforts. It is hard to feel sorry for anybody in that situation, but as Wi points out, "We play out here to win."

Wi has won nine tournaments, eight in Asia and one in Europe. In the good ol' USA, he has been second five times. Very good and also very frustrating. Even on the second-tier Nationwide Tour, now the web.com circuit, he never won.

"I'm too technical, I think about mechanics too much," he says. "It's the paralysis of analysis. Too much try. Try, try…try too hard."

He will tee off in the late morning Thursday in the first round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera. It will be his sixth straight PGA Tour event and the approach will be one he is working on ardently — keeping it simple.

"We have a saying on the tour," he says. "Just play better."

And so, with a swing and a mind that Wi says are in the right place — keeping it simple — he will take another shot this weekend at getting the non-winner monkey label off his back. It doesn't seem unreasonable to think his time is due. Certainly sometime this season.

He just turned 41. He was born in Seoul but lives in Westlake Village with his wife and children, ages 6 and 3. Of the 20 rounds he has played in 2013, he has shot under 70 10 times, including a 63, a 64 and a 65. He has made the cut in all five tournaments, he has already won $222,408 and is coming off a finishing 69 Sunday at Pebble Beach, which gave him his best finish of the year so far, a tie for 16th. For 2013, Wi is 44 under par.

He says Riviera is one of his favorite courses, right after Pebble Beach. But then, just about every golfer in the field says that on the West Coast swing. It's almost as if Ben Hogan is buried under a green and that makes it mandatory to pay homage. In truth, any course that has a plaque on a tee that quotes Hogan praising it (No. 4), or a plaque commemorating the spot in the rough of an improbable approach shot (by Dave Stockton on No. 18) has earned its accolades.

Riviera would be a fine place for Wi to exorcise some ghosts of runner-up finishes past, especially the 2012 AT&T at Pebble. He led that one by three shots going into the final round, then four-putted the first hole for a double bogey as Phil Mickelson roared to victory.

"That pin was really in a tough place," he says now, knowing that no pin placement is so tough that a tour player should need four swipes with a flat stick.

He also says that he learned from that experience and that he will draw on it the next time he is in a similar position.

"I've been in that spot before and shot 80," he says. "But I fought back and kept going [shooting even par] at Pebble and was able to get second. Phil was making everything he looked at and there wasn't much I could do."

Well, not exactly. Mickelson shot 64 and won by two shots, the extra two shots above par that Wi took on the first green.

"You walk away with a check for nearly $700,000," he says, "and you are kind of happy. It is our job to win money. But you are still out there to win, and I didn't."

He also says winning is valuable for another reason.

"You get the respect of your peers," he says.

Any victory would be the culmination of an unlikely path to the PGA Tour for Wi. He went to Westlake High, was a good golfer but a better skier and found the best of both worlds when he got a scholarship to play at the University of Nevada. He made some money as a ski instructor, but the surrounding mountains and snow weren't a great springboard to a golf career.

So he transferred to California and by his senior year in 1995, he was the third-ranked collegiate golfer in the nation.

"That's when I started to think about this as a career," he says.

While knowing full well the length of the odds, Wi thinks that Riviera would be a perfect coming-out party for his career. He can drive home every night and sleep in his own bed. He says he is only 25 minutes away in no traffic, which, of course, doubles in the hour's drive on Sunset Boulevard just getting to the 405.

He knows he has three weeks off after this one. And he also knows that, even though his world ranking is No. 104 and it would take No. 50 or better to get into the Masters, winning at Riviera would take care of the Masters issue.

Mostly, he doesn't want to catch any more bouquets. It's time to throw them.

bill.bwyre@latimes.com
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