Wie finds form – professionally and personally
Editor's note: This story originally ran in the June 6th issue of Golfweek. Wie won the U.S. Women's Open on June 22nd.
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JUPITER, Fla. – Last January, Michelle Wie traveled to the LPGA’s season-opener in the Bahamas without her parents. She drove the ball into a bunker on the first hole and, from a bad lie, hit an 8-iron to 2 inches. Wie looked toward the gallery to celebrate but then remembered that, for the first time in her career, mom and dad weren’t there.
“I called them right afterwards and I explained it to them,” Wie said. “They said they saw the 3 and they were yelling and screaming, and Lola (Wie’s Pomeranian mix) was running around the house barking. It was like I won the golf tournament on the first hole.”
Wie had heard the ribbing from her peers at Atlantis: Oh, she’s off the leash. What’s she going to do?
Forget the casino. Wie didn’t even hit the beach while on Paradise Island.
“I was in bed by 8 p.m.,” she said, laughing.
Christina Kim, one of Wie’s closest friends on tour, thought Wie’s tie for 13th during this little experiment was huge for everyone involved.
“She’s in the Bahamas, which is a beautiful, tropical getaway, and we’re at the Atlantis,” Kim said. “You have all of these means of temptation that any 24-year-old would have no problem delving into, but she said, No, it’s work time. She has no problem focusing on the things that matter. . . . I think that relieved a lot of pressure for her, relieved a lot of pressure for her parents.”
Wie has yet to travel alone since then, but the one-time child prodigy is keen on taking things slowly. She has been under the spotlight since age 10, a household name before she could drive and considered an underachiever by the time she could vote. She has been celebrated and skinned so many times, she feels at least 50.
“I feel like I’ve lived 10 lives already,” Wie said.
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The Wies moved to Jupiter from ChampionsGate near Orlando almost three years ago so Michelle could be near her friend and former manager, Jeehae Lee, and the ocean. The native Hawaiian was “dying” from beach withdrawal.
She moved with her parents to The Bear’s Club, four houses down from Michael Jordan.
“M.J. has been asking to play,” Wie said. “We’ve always missed each other somehow.”
She tees it up a lot with Keegan Bradley and Camilo Villegas. Sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, she said, doesn’t need the strokes she gives him.
“He took my money, but I won it back when Stanford beat Oregon,” said Wie, a diehard citizen of #nerdnation.
She had a game set up with Rickie Fowler later in the week.
Next door at Trump National, where Wie often indulges at the spa with her mom, she recently joined Golfweek for a chat about her game’s resurgence. Away from the TV cameras, Wie talked freely. She showed a reporter some of what Meg Mallon calls her “Stanford brain”: quirky, creative and fun.
“I feel like when I was younger, I always wanted to be like, ‘At this age I want to do this; at that age I want to be that,’ ” Wie said, “and life doesn’t happen like that. You get thrown around in the washing machine a little bit. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Things get thrown at you, coins come out of pockets. It’s a weird analogy, but it’s true.”
“Did you just come up with that one?” Wie’s manager, Jamie Kuhn, asked.
“Yeah. There might be a red sock in there that throws everything pink,” Wie said, laughing.
If only every Wie interview were this entertaining.
There was a time on the LPGA when a young Wie blew into town, stole the show, ruffled feathers and went back to the PGA Tour. She came with an entourage, extra privileges and a game that dwarfed much of the competition’s. The women’s game was a mere sideshow compared with the big dream: playing in the Masters. She nearly did, losing in the quarterfinals of the 2005 men’s Amateur Public Links Championship at age 15.
When Stacy Lewis won the 2008 LPGA Qualifying School, hardly anyone noticed because a 19-year-old Wie finally had earned her card.
“At the time I was pretty frustrated with it,” Lewis said. “Now I think seeing it more from the business side of things, I get why Michelle has had the attention. Everybody wants to know what she’s doing. She has that ‘wow’ factor.”
Wie jokes that when she moved to Jupiter, she forced her friendship on Lewis. The two now are genuine friends, playing often during offweeks at Medalist Golf Club with fellow pros Alison Walshe, Belen Mozo, Cindy LaCrosse and Meaghan Francella.
“We kind of all work out together, eat together, play together,” Wie said of the young pros in town. “It’s kind of like a big summer camp.”
Wie relies heavily on insights from the matriarchs of this bunch, retired players Beth Daniel and Mallon, two captains who picked her for Solheim Cup teams.
When Wie’s putting turned abysmal – she ranked 119th in both putting categories in 2012 – Mallon shared her own past struggles and preached confidence.
“She told me that she convinced herself that she was the world’s best putter,” Wie said. “So I started telling myself, I’m a really good putter; I’m a really good putter, and now I believe it.”
Rather than look at a putt, thinking, Oh, I need to make this, Wie now stands over the line asking herself, How can I make this?
Mallon laughs at the critics who worry about Wie’s back when she putts. For a player of Wie’s stature, tabletopping – Wie’s self-taught method to see the line better – actually reduces pressure on her back.
“Any player would kill to jump 70 spots in putting and stand on one foot if they could do that,” Mallon said.
Wie has improved 77 spots in two years in overall putting and 114 spots (she’s now fifth) in putts per greens in regulation.
A runner-up finish to Lexi Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco Championship followed by a victory in Hawaii (her third career LPGA title) reignited hope that Wie can lift the LPGA in Tiger-like proportions.
At the year’s second major, Wie will walk onto what could be the biggest stage in U.S. Women’s Open history: Pinehurst No. 2, just hours after a men’s champion is crowned.
Mallon looks at Wie’s short game – which she considers top 3 on tour, with Laura Davies’ and Karrie Webb’s – and sees an advantage.
“Our players are not going to get enough opportunity to practice to be able to hone a short game around that course,” Mallon said, “so you’d better bring one.”
As for the difficult greens, Daniel said she always felt that if the greens were really tough, even the good players weren’t making many putts, giving the advantage to great ballstrikers with a solid short game. Wie is second on tour in greens in regulation.
David Leadbetter called the first time he saw Wie’s swing at age 14 “awe-inspiring.” He has been blasted by critics over the last 10 years for making her too mechanical.
“I’ve never been overly technical with her,” Leadbetter said. “I’ve got two people in the equation who are technical with her.”
That would be mother Bo and father B.J., who would notice if their daughter’s pigtails were out of balance.
When Wie fell running backward as a high-school senior and broke three bones in her left wrist, she lost mobility and had to rebuild her wristy swing, which led to back pain.
“I’m finally feeling healthy, and that’s my No. 1 priority,” Wie said. “I’m not doing anything dangerous. I’m basically putting myself in a bubble.”
She had been on the range that day with her trainer and physical therapist, looking at the biomechanics of her swing. They saw issues with a high hip, her right knee caving in and a little bit of “duck foot.”
New workouts will attempt to make those areas stronger.
As for her swing, Wie quit looking at video months ago, preferring to feel her way through the progress. She’s now armed with a driver she can keep in play and a stinger shot that dates to her Oahu grade-school days.
“A lot of people have misconceptions that I hit the ball high, and I don’t,” she said. “I grew up in the wind, and I never hit floaty shots. I’ve always been the person that drilled the shot into the green.”
Wie’s stinger 3-wood can go so low that she claims to have clipped tee boxes, flying it 80 yards and watching it roll out to 250. Why try to cram a driver into play, Wie reasons, when she can hit 3-wood, wedge?
Wie said the “most amazing thing” that happened to her short game was Phil Mickelson. When she was in high school, Mickelson invited her to San Diego, bought her breakfast and took her out to the short-game area of his club. She expected a quick 30-minute lesson.
“I was with him on the chipping green and on the range doing wedge drills for seven hours,” said Wie, still in awe of the gesture.
“I remember everything.”
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Christina Kim’s loyalty to Wie dates to 2003, when they played together at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She calls much of what is written about Wie “a load of garbage.”
“She’s the coolest chick I know,” Kim said. “She’s one of the biggest nerds I know. And she’s clumsy, she’s funny, she’s quirky, she’s awkward, she’s brilliant – all these words that no one ever uses in the pieces that they write. They always talk about a missed 2-footer or that she never uses her driver off the tee.”
Wie’s caddie for the past year, Duncan French, is Kim’s boyfriend. Wie often is the third wheel at dinner. When French and Wie “celebrated” their one-year anniversary in Phoenix, she brought a balloon to him at the course. The caddie carousel from Wie’s early years has stopped spinning.
Mallon said the list of misconceptions about Wie and her family is long and bothersome. She was disturbed by “vitriol” spewed at Wie after she ran off a green at the 2013 Solheim Cup when the Europeans still had to
putt. Mallon said Wie was mortified when she heard what people were saying.
“She thought they were done putting, and she ran up to me on 17,” Mallon said. “She was just a kid caught up in the excitement . . . not a single bone in her body is rude.”
B.J. and Bo sheltered their only child from much of the bad press over the years. She might not have read it, but they did. There was a time, Wie said, when her father would scrapbook every newspaper article he could find.
“Everyone has been so tough on my parents, but they’re so loving,” Wie said. “Everyone thinks they’re really hard on me, that if I play a bad round they tear me apart. But it’s not true at all.”
Bo knows something about the spotlight, having grown up in the pageant world in South Korea. Michelle said she’s somewhat disappointed she never had a chance to follow in mom’s footsteps. There are home movies of a young Michelle practicing her princess wave while being introduced as “Miss Junior Hawaii.”
“I feel like when I was growing up my parents never planned on raising a so-and-so prodigy,” Wie said. “They had no idea what to do.”
Wie’s consistency in 2014 – seven top-10s, including five consecutive and a victory in Hawaii – rekindles hope that she finally can deliver a monster year on the LPGA. Yet she never has had a multi-win season, won a major or been ranked No. 1.
“If you saw someone come on tour with her great talent, you would think, What is this girl going to do in the next few years?” Leadbetter said. “If you didn’t know the history.”
Annika Sorenstam won her first major in 1995 at age 24, and look what followed.
Mallon sees the pressure building, and she worries.
“Here comes the pedestal again,” Mallon said.
Only this time Wie isn’t a wide-eyed kid with controversial dreams. She’s no longer a prodigy. She’s a college graduate with a big bank account who shops at thrift stores, lunches at Jack and Barbara Nicklaus’ club and hits golf shots only a handful of women could match.
She lives a balanced, marginally independent life that still fascinates.
“It’s like the start of a new career,” Wie said. “It’s crazy to think how young I am.”