Achenbach: Wie has always been special

Michelle Wie has always stood out from the crowd due to her size and her dedication to the sport from a young age.
Michelle Wie has always stood out from the crowd due to her size and her dedication to the sport from a young age. ( Getty Images )

Sunday, June 22, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. – Michelle Wie has won the U.S. Women's Open, rekindling memories of how I met her in the first place.

It was June 18, 2002, at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort, site of the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship.

I woke at 8 a.m. and whisked open the curtains of my room. That’s when I saw her – the giant. Right outside my window, on the practice putting green, this tree-tall golfer was plunking putt after putt.

I thought of yelling something like, “You got touch, girl,” but I am skeptical of all sightings, whether they be of Elvis, flying saucers, Big Foot or a giant with soft hands.

In my little hometown on the Illinois prairie, two of my buddies, having consumed too much demon brew, once made a late-night call to the local police. “There’s a lion running loose downtown,” they reported.

Actually it was a very large, shaggy dog.

“You be sure and get home safely,” the policeman told them. “We’ll take care of the lion.”

The lion may have been imaginary, but the giant was real. At the WAPL, everybody was talking about Wie, who at the time was 5-foot-11 and still growing. Hey, she was 12 years old.

Wie has never been wee.

“Do people always ask you why your daughter is so tall?” I inquired of her father, Byung-Woof Wie, a Korean native and university professor who settled his family in Honolulu.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“And what do you tell them?” I wondered.

“I tell them she eats a lot of well-balanced meals,” he explained. “Also, I am big (6-foot-2), and my wife is big (Hyun Kyong Wie is 5-foot-7).”

Big, in this case, has never meant fat. Members of the Wie family have always looked extremely athletic – slim, flexible, powerful. Michelle also appeared to be very mature and could have easily passed, I would guess, for 17 or 18.

Although her semifinal match didn’t start until 10:15 a.m., she was practicing on the putting green more than two hours before the competition. This was nothing new.

“She’s here at 6 a.m. eating breakfast and here at 9 p.m. eating dinner,” said Josie Whisnant, special events coordinator for Sunriver Resort. Well-balanced meals, to be sure.

“And when she’s not playing,” Whisnant concluded, “she’s out practicing.” Where does a giant practice? Anywhere she wants.

Wie was an eighth-grader at the time. She was an authentic golf prodigy. I made an entry in my notebook: "Men of the world, beware. This 12-year-old girl will make you feel totally inadequate on the golf course."

In her WAPL semifinal match against Hwanhee Lee of Las Vegas, Wie outdrove her opponent by 73 yards on the first hole. I stepped it off. The hole played 357 yards, and Wie’s drive finished 55 yards from the flagstick.

  • On the 360-yard ninth hole, Wie had 50 yards left to the pin after pulverizing her drive.
  • On the 385-yard 11th hole, Lee opted to hit fairway wood to the green while Wie hit pitching wedge.
  • On the 326-yard 15th hole, Wie’s drive finished in a greenside bunker. There was no wind.

“It must have something to do with all that volcanic dust in Hawaii,” said one teenage boy in the gallery.

In a 5-and-4 victory over Janell Howland of Beaumont, Texas, Wie recorded 3s on 10 of 14 holes. She made birdies on seven of nine par-4s.

Wie reminded me of Tiger Woods. The first time I saw Woods, he was 11. “You won’t believe this kid,” I told my friends.

“That sure is a funny first name,” many of them responded.

A few years later, the world discovered Woods. Tiger was no longer a funny name.

After my experience at Sunriver, my newest tale became that of Wie. I predicted this young girl would turn the golf world upside down. As Tiger was about to transform men’s golf, she would revolutionize the women’s game.

Well, not quite. Not yet.

In golf, as in life, anything is possible. Several hundred spectators watched in astonishment as Lee, the giant slayer, was 2 under in beating Wie 3-and-2 in the WAPL semifinal.

I was left to wonder if there was a lion running loose in Taylorville, Ill.