For all their talent, sports prodigies are no match for the force of celebrity. It robs them of their youth, dresses them as adults and delivers stardom, often before success. Fame wasn’t always kind to Michelle Wie. The glare was unrelenting. In time, the gum-popping, big-bopping 13-year-old grew into a weary young woman who lost her game and was burdened by fame. Diagnosed with burnout and overbearing parents, Wie was widely presumed to be finished before she turned 20. Then she pressed restart. In 2012, the fresh-faced Stanford University graduate moved to Florida and adopted a new outlook and a new putting stroke. Her play improved, and on the heels of a second-place finish at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco, it finally happened: The heir apparent claimed her crown. Wie’s 2014 U.S. Women’s Open win at Pinehurst No. 2 was her career in microcosm: fast start, a stumble, an inspiring rebound. And to top it off, she twerked.
We talked with Wie—who for all her media polish retains a hint of teenage up-talk in her speech—near her Jupiter, Fla., home to ask about her career-defining win, the chiropractor’s dream that is her putting stance, and the virtues of eating live squid.
Your win at Pinehurst has been called the biggest women’s golf moment since Annika played with the men in Colonial. Do you agree?
It’s an honor to hear that, and it was definitely the biggest moment in my career. Every time I see my name on the trophy, it’s so surreal, I almost can’t believe it happened. But putting it in the context of women’s golf history, that’s not something I’ve tried to do.
Last June at Pinehurst, the men and women’s U.S. Opens were held on the same course in back-to-back weeks. You spent the Sunday of the men’s competition on the course following the final group of Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer. Shouldn’t you have been resting, or on the range?
No way! I was not going to miss that. Partly, I was out there to watch Rickie and root for him. But I also wanted to see how they were playing the course.
Kaymer won by eight shots. What was it like watching him take apart Pinehurst No. 2?
Inspiring. It got me in the mood for the competition and put me in the mindset of, “It’s possible to go low out there, especially if you play smart.” Getting on the greens can be tricky, but once you do, there are a lot of flat putts. I thought, “If Martin can do it, I can do it, too.”
You also had some inside information, right?
The week of the [Women’s] Open, I texted Rickie and Keegan [Bradley] and asked them for their yardage books with all their notes. They were more than willing to hand them over. During the week of a major, you want to conserve energy, so those notes helped, especially during the practice rounds. It was like taking a test and already having the answers. Then again, there are a lot of danger spots on that course, and some of Rickie’s notes said obvious things like, “Don’t miss it left.” And I was like, “Yeah, no sh--, Sherlock!”
Did Rickie’s notes suggest hitting it into the wire grass on 16 on Sunday with a 3-stroke lead?
[Laughs] Definitely not. I put my drive in the bunker and tried laying up with a hybrid, which came back to bite me. It took a while to find my ball, which was stressful. But once I did, and managed to get out of there with a double-bogey, I had to laugh.
You drained a gutsy five-footer on 16 to avoid making a triple-bogey. You were smiling as you walked toward 17. Since when is a double-bogey on the 70th hole of the U.S. Women’s Open funny?
It’s all in how you see it. The thing I’m proudest of is how I stayed in the moment coming down the stretch. When I was younger, I used to fret and get ahead of myself. But my caddy, Duncan [French], just laughs off everything, and I feed off that attitude. After the double-bogey, I thought, “Whatever happens is gonna happen.” Then I made a long putt on 17 for birdie, and I did laugh. I thought, “Now that’s really funny.” And I won by two.
Speaking of funny, do you ever feel self-conscious about your hunched-over putting stance?
I don’t care how it looks, as long as I’m making putts. I’m not in the business of looking cool. The truth is, some players have been coming up to me discreetly and saying, “I’ve been trying it at my club, but as soon as someone comes by, I stand up.” I joke that I’ve found the secret, and everyone else is just too scared to try it. And some friends have said, “It’s the first time a putting stance has become a pickup line.”
You also got attention for a video of you twerking while doing a handstand, to celebrate your win. Will we see that move again?
I hope so. I hurt my wrist so I haven’t repeated it. That’s how I’ll know I’m fully healed—when I’m back to twerking.
I got flowers from Adam Sandler, who I played with at the Sony when I was 13. You know you’ve made it in golf when you get flowers from Happy Gilmore.
Some think your resurgence owes to you graduating from college, having your own place in Florida, and getting space from your parents. Do you buy that?
I don’t see that as the real reason I’m playing better. My parents and I have always been very close-knit, and we still are. We travel together every week. I call it the family circus, with the dog and everything.
So greater independence isn’t the secret to your success?
There’s no doubt that I’ve matured since I first came out on Tour. But the important point is that I’m happy in life. I enjoy the game and the challenge. When I hit it into the trees, I enjoy the challenge of trying to get out. Learning to embrace the difficulties is what’s helped. So has playing with guys like Rickie and Keegan and Camilo [Villegas] during their off weeks. Their mentality has rubbed off. The idea that if you don’t make birdie, it’s not the end of the world. That and the aggressive way they play. I’m not talking about other women golfers, only myself, but I feel like the guys go for a lot more greens, take more chances. Their attitude is, if it goes in the water, it goes in the water. No big deal. I was always, “Oh God, no! Not in the water!” I’ve incorporated their mentality. If there’s trouble on a hole, it’s only a problem if I don’t hit a good shot, and eight times out of 10, I’m gonna hit a good shot, so there’s no reason to worry. It comes down to believing in myself and knowing that, because you know what? I’m a pretty good golfer.
You became a media sensation when you first played with the men on the PGA Tour, at the Sony Open in 2004, and that didn’t seem great for your confidence.
I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at that age. I was so young. I was shocked that people were talking about it so much. I learned a lot from that experience. It pushed me to try harder and get better because I was obviously out of my league.
How long did it take you to realize that you were out of your league on the PGA Tour?
Pretty quickly. I was a 14-year-old girl, and I’m on the range next to Ernie Els. And you soon realize that these guys are pretty good.
If Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson or another young LPGA star was considering playing against the men, what advice would you offer?
I’d say, “If you really want to do it, go for it. It’s your life, no one else’s.”
Would you tell your younger self the same thing, if you could?
You can’t relive the past, and I don’t regret those experiences. Opportunities like that don’t come every day. I knew I was lucky. And I tried to use the experience to my benefit. Looking back, I made great friends. I got to play with Camilo in his first PGA Tour event. He was way shorter than me. I still make fun of him for that.
Shorter off the tee?
No, I mean height. But I was really long back then. One hole at the Sony, I was the third-longest in the field on the ShotTracker, which was pretty cool.
Can you still bomb it with the men?
I’m not as long. I’ve dealt with injuries, which kept me from having the wiry swing I had when I was younger. But on the LPGA Tour, you don’t have to hit it 350. The most important thing is placement, so that’s where I focus my energy.
You’re in a good place now, but you went through many struggles. What was the low point?
There were plenty of low points that I never want to revisit, moments when I thought, “I don’t want to play golf anymore.” But they passed. In the end, I’ll always love golf because I enjoy the challenge. I love that it’s so hard, and there’s always something to work on. That’s a downfall. I love tinkering.
What low point stands out?
Honestly, I’ve blocked out a lot of those memories. I’ll say that 2012 was very difficult because it plateaued into bad round after bad round. There were no really good rounds. I was working hard without seeing results.
How did you escape that slump?
My parents were key. Even when everyone didn’t believe in me, threw me away, my parents always thought I was the best. They thought I was better than I thought I was, and they were so relentless in believing in me that I started to believe in myself again.
Still, parents are parents—they tend to embarrass their kids. What’s the most embarrassing thing your parents have ever done?
This could take all day! One thing is when my dad watches me play, these weird noises come out of him. That would get to me. But after watching Tina [Christina Kim] in a playoff last year I understand, because it was so stressful that there were strange noises coming out of me. I don’t know how my parents can watch me.
How did they handle the pressure as you were playing the 70th hole last year at Pinehurst?
My mom said, “Believe it or not, I was pretty calm.” My dad was probably trying to find my ball with his binoculars.
Your outfits draw attention. Does it bother you that as a female athlete, your appearance can get as much notice as your performance?
We strike a good balance on the LPGA Tour. We like to show off our style, and to dress up on the red carpets. You’ve got to show it off somewhere, you know?
Would you ever do the cover of a swimsuit magazine or a magazine celebrating athletes’ bodies?
I’ve been asked. The answer is no.
Who do you think should be the next LPGA player to do one?
Belen Mozo. She’s done one before, but she should do it again. She has an awesome body.
Now that we’re done objectifying the women, let’s move on to the men. Who’s the best-looking guy out there?
I don’t watch enough golf to answer that.
Well, I think Rory looks great. I love all the bright colors I’ve seen him in. And he works out a ton and fills out his clothes better.
Are you a fitness buff?
I work out all the time, and I cut out refined sugar because I was pretty much addicted to Sour Patch Kids and cookies. I needed afternoon sugar. Breaking bad habits is a way to test myself.
You ate live squid in a video you posted. Are you a foodie?
I’m passionate about food, but I’m also allergic to almost everything. I can’t eat gluten and dairy, and I’m allergic to a lot of fruit. I love to cook, though, so I’ll eat bad food but switch out the ingredients to make it healthy. I made an entire Thanksgiving meal that was gluten- and dairy-free. Pecan pie. Pumpkin pie.
You also paint, including dark images of skulls. Are you a goth golfer?
I’m emo. I’ve joked that I’m the happiest emo person alive. I went through a full-on goth phase in high school.
Did you bring your goth side to the golf course?
No. I just wore black nail polish. It’s hard to be goth in golf clothes. I don’t think that drawing skulls necessarily means you’re sad. Painting is good for me. It helps me release stress.
What do fans not know about you?
How goofy and not mature I am. I’m always messing around with other players, like Tiffany Joh. I’ll see her on the practice green, sneak up behind her and lift up her skirt.
Is playing in the Masters still a goal for you?
Goals and dreams are different. Dreams are way, way out there. You may be able to achieve a dream, and you may not. In that sense, Augusta is still a dream.
So what’s an achievable goal?
I want to win more majors. I want to be the No. 1 player in the world. But the truth is, I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow. I used to map out every step of my life, and that’s where a lot of my trouble came. I used to say, “By 18, I want to do this, and by 20 I want to do that.” That’s not how it works. Life never happens the way you plan.