Wie delivering on her limitless potential
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
This story appeared in the Jan. 1, 2010 issue of Golfweek.
PALM DESERT, Calif. - Bored in an Arkansas hotel room last September, Michelle Wie started a blog. She posted better-than-average sketches, do-it-yourself projects, Hawaiian recipes and pictures of clothes she’d made by hand. It looked like Martha Stewart’s grandchild went on an urban-Asian-thrift-store kick.
Wie’s site – ablackflamingo.blogspot.com – is everything she’s not at golf tournaments. Casual, free-spirited, transparent and cheap. The Stanford junior chose “Black Flamingo” because she wanted the name, much like the site, to be oxymoronic.
It’s a side of Wie the golf world knows little about.
“I think I’m more laid-back than people think I am,” said Wie, lounging on a sofa in Bighorn Golf Club’s locker room.
Wie arrived at a November interview looking like she’d just rolled out of bed. A crisp Nike outfit hung on a golf cart outside the clubhouse, but Wie was classic college student in her gray 2XL Stanford sweatshirt, skinny jeans and tousled hair. She wore her last Stanford hoodie so much that friends forced her to replace the thinning, toothpaste-stained security blanket.
Days after pulling out of the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship with a sore ankle, Wie posed for Golfweek in a $5.9 million model home at Bighorn. The manse, while not her own, befits what many in the golf industry have come to think of Wie: Spoiled.
Wie, 20, is known for being somewhat robotic in the media room. Scribes and fans alike hear the 6-foot-tall Hawaiian repeat the same scripted phrases week after week, with little creative insight. She sounds a lot younger than she looks.
But that morning with Wie – away from a tournament spotlight, TV cameras and fans – revealed a different vibe from the childhood prodigy. There’s no changing the fact that she has been a multimillionaire since age 16. She’s a groomed athlete with an entourage of IMG and Nike supporters, raised by the ever-present B.J. and Bo Wie, the Korean parents who orchestrated this young phenom’s career, for better and for worse.
On this day, however, Wie seemed amazingly normal. She spoke from the heart. She rarely stumbled over her words. She was gracious, low-key, easy to talk to. This must have been what Wie’s Solheim Cup teammates saw in the rookie player at Rich Harvest Farms: Wie unguarded.
With her parents close by, a relaxed Wie talked about her obsession with DIY projects, growing up rich, off-the-wall rumors and life in the Stanford bubble.
Oh, and finally winning a golf tournament.
“It’s a good feeling to win,” Wie said of her Nov. 15 victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. “I want to do it again and again.”
• • •
While packing her bags for Thailand, Beth Ann Baldry takes a few minutes to talk about the upcoming LPGA season.
Michelle Wie was supposed to be golf’s next big thing. Really big. She was projected to win majors before she could drive, hoist the LPGA onto her shoulders and carry it to greatness. OK, so the women never expected their purses to swell in Tiger-like proportions, but Wie was supposed to change the game.
Looking back, B.J. Wie can point to areas where he went wrong. There are regrets.
“The biggest mistake was underestimating her injury,” said B.J., referring to the mysterious broken left wrist three years ago that set her back two years.
B.J. said the fracture didn’t show up on the first MRI, in January 2007. Later tests, however, revealed fractures on three bones. Thus, he says, the conflicting media reports. Wie was running backward at Stanford when she fell on the wrist.
According to B.J., Michelle didn’t get her full swing speed back until last summer’s Solheim Cup. Losing most of her power was a “huge frustration” for Michelle, B.J. said. Her trademark length suddenly vanished.
In the wake of the injury, Wie developed a fitness/rehabilitation program with Gray Cook and Lee Burton, trainers based in Virginia. B.J. describes himself as the middle man in his daughter’s career, taking copious notes from the experts in her life – David Leadbetter, Dave Stockton, et al. – to remind her of what needs to be done.
When asked which parent knew her swing the best, Michelle pointed to mom, who boasts the lower handicap. The Wies take turns working with their only child on the range. B.J. serves as cinematographer and caddie while Bo offers tips. They no longer have time for golf themselves.
“(Leadbetter) wants me to be the expert on my swing,” Michelle said. “The reason I have 10 golf swings is because I can change things in my swing so easily. Sometimes I just change too much.”
Wie adapted quickly to the advice of Stockton, a two-time major champion and putting expert who worked with her in the days leading to the Solheim Cup. B.J. said the short-game session helped his daughter pay less attention to mechanics and focus more on getting the ball into the hole. It worked.
“This girl has so much talent,” Stockton said, “there’s no telling how much she could win.”
Leadbetter, Wie’s longtime swing instructor, knew if he could get Wie on a steady diet of LPGA events, she’d win one sooner rather than later. It took nearly a full season on tour, but Wie managed to pull out her first professional victory in November at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, the tour’s penultimate event.
B.J. also wishes he had scheduled Michelle’s tournaments differently, particularly in 2006. Remember when she was hauled out of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic on a stretcher?
“Too many in a row,” B.J. said. “Now she can do three in a row because she’s more conditioned and mature.”
When Wie reviews 2009, she points to consistency as her main area of improvement. She learned the ropes from players such as Cristie Kerr and Suzann Pettersen; shared meals on the road with Morgan Pressel and Christina Kim; and talked Cosmo with Natalie Gulbis.
Wie stepped out of her cocoon under the leadership of Solheim captain Beth Daniel, who kept Wie’s parents at a distance. For one week, Wie simply was one of the girls.
“This is not a natural environment where people come together to become friends,” Wie said. “It’s not like college where you go to mixers and try to meet people. We’re not out there to meet people. We’re out there to win.”
B.J. said his daughter has meals with friends on tour Mondays and Tuesdays. Maybe a little shopping. By Wednesday, it’s back to room service with mom and dad. These are baby steps toward independence.
It’s difficult to ask Wie about her parents’ role in her life, considering they are never out of earshot. Wie said there will be a time when she travels to tournaments with only her IMG manager, Nickole Raymond.
“I definitely see that in the next couple years,” she said. “Right now I’m just happy with the balance that I have. I’m still just 20, you know. It’s a brutal world out there.”
• • •
B.J. Wie calls his daughter’s decision to enroll at Stanford the best move of her young life. He thinks she’s happiest on the Palo Alto, Calif., campus.
“I love being a Tree,” Wie said, grinning widely. “It’s just really laid-back, really chill.”
Even the statistics class that is “destroying” her little by little played a crucial part in Wie’s first victory. She estimates she spent 20 hours studying in Mexico, even Skyping with a study group to solve a particularly stubborn problem.
“I feel like studying these days is so stressful for me that it puts me in a better place on the golf course,” Wie said. “I finally realized why (amateurs) like to play golf. It’s a great escape, great stress reliever.”
While many freshmen tend to recognize Wie, few classmates know much about golf. Wie’s roommate, a wisp of a sophomore from Hawaii, recently asked about the hair accessories Wie sported after practice. What followed was an amusing conversation about the function of a golf tee.
Chiara Essig may know nothing about golf, but she decorated their Stanford dorm room in November in honor of Wie’s victory. Stanford friends “Googled” Wie after reading on her Facebook status that she had won in Mexico. “Won what?” they wondered.
“She doesn’t think about golf (at college),” B.J. said. “Stanford is a chance to forget everything.”
Essig shares Wie’s fascination with do-it-yourself projects. Together they built a tiki bar found on YouTube – “OMG this is genius!” – using duct tape.
“Of course, we had to do it with two Hawaiians in the room,” Wie said.
Wie even bought a sewing machine in September so that she and her cousin Lynn could stay up all night designing their own clothes.
What started out as a notebook of drawings quickly morphed into a medley of mediums. Wie loves to spray paint (especially her Nikes) and blend colored pencils, crayons, water colors and Sharpies. She already has filled three sketch books, transferring her favorite designs onto T-shirts.
To find supplies for her projects, Wie combs through local thrift stores in search of the perfect deal. Her best find? A pair of ripped jeans she bought for $1. The jeans were half-off, and the millionaire prodigy has gotten more than her money’s worth.
“I don’t even think about how much I make,” said Wie, who banked $918,659 this season on the course alone. “It’s still an awkward concept for me. When I go out and eat with my friends, we still split the check, all the normal stuff.”
Wie buys generic brands when it makes sense and is “infamous among friends” for window shopping. She recently made a belt using a yard of elastic and 1-inch gold studs.
“I loved the belt that (Sarah Jessica Parker) wore in the “Sex and the City” movie . . . but I don’t wanna dish out hundreds of bucks on something I know I can make,” Wie wrote on her blog.
Wie’s taste runs the gamut of quality. While she fashioned her latest belt by hand, the chandeliers dangling from her ears on the golf course might be Dior. Her biggest splurge to date – a BMW X5 – was followed by a recent birthday purchase: a Kia Soul Burner. The customized Korean car features red-paneled interior, black rims and a dragon painted on the side.
“It’s pretty pimp,” said the self-proclaimed car lover.
Wie does everything she can to maintain a normal college existence, even though her parents accompany her to practice every day. B.J. said they used to have a weekly dinner with their daughter during school, but that ritual died late last year. They can’t even get Michelle to answer the phone when she’s on campus.
“We have to text,” he said.
Wie refers to Stanford as her “little bubble” and finds it amusing that some believe her college life is a ruse.
“There are so many rumors,” said Wie, after putting an end to the one about her injuring a wrist swinging at a frat-party pinata.
“ ‘Oh, my God. I heard Michelle’s parents live on campus,’ ” she said, laughing.
Or how about the time she was at a Stanford football game standing next to a friend who holds a “Defense” sign to rally the crowd. The camera found Wie when she happened to be standing close to stadium security. Her iPhone lit up.
“ ‘Oh, my God. That’s Michelle. She has a bodyguard,’ ” Wie said. “No, I’m not fly like that.”
Wie finds that she studies far less than her friends and scores better than average in the classroom. She’s still on the five-year plan at Stanford and is leaning toward a degree in communication. She planned to take 20 hours, the maximum, during the winter quarter.
B.J. predicts she’ll play golf for 10 years before venturing into another phase of life.
“We want her to have a good family, kids,” he said.
Wie has dreams of starting her own line of clothes and accessories. She’s also pondering real estate and golf-course development as long-term ambitions.
Her charity – the Michelle Wie Foundation – has given away $1.725 million since she turned professional and keeps Wie attached to her roots. In South Korea, she funds new technology for children with height disorders. Wie sees her stature as a blessing and wants to help Korean children stand taller.
At an elementary school in Hawaii, where homelessness is prevalent, Wie helped build a recreational room with Sony computers, video games and air conditioning.
“I think people don’t realize there’s a lot of poverty in Hawaii,” she said. “When people think of Hawaii, they think of paradise.”
She also has donated $50,000 to the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association, given $500,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina and helped fund an underprivileged-children’s care facility in Japan.
For a woman who comes across childlike – sometimes even goofy – in her interviews, her artwork, like her charity endeavors, shows something deeper. Her sketches – some playful, some dark – exhibit layers of emotion and creativity that’s often lost in a roomful of reporters and television cameras. She likes to draw robots in her sketches, a touch of irony not lost on those who have tried to break down Wie’s walls.
These days, it’s tough to find a critic of her talent. The power game that set Wie apart as a teen grows stronger. She’s back to enjoying the game.
“You can’t just try to be confident,” Leadbetter said. “Confidence is built on performance.”
Wie’s professional career, the ultimate do-it-yourself-project, finally is starting to take shape.
“It had been a long wait,” B.J. said.
– James Achenbach contributed