At 14, Michelle Wie Is Poised, Confident, Brilliant, Brattish, Driven
This story first appeared in the May 3, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated.
She’s already going pro. Every day. A little. On this Monday the transformation begins at three in the afternoon. A silver Lexus twinkles in the buttery afternoon sun as it idles in the horseshoe-shaped driveway of Honolulu’s Punahou School. Her parents wait in the front seats. Her snack, a plate of coffee cake and a bottle of milk, is perched on the rear-seat divider. The school bell rings, and a tall, gangly freshman appears from behind a stucco wall, taking long strides across the close-cut lawn, her bubblegum-pink hoop earrings jiggling as she approaches. There are dozens of parents hanging their elbows out of parked automobiles, and she is one among a phalanx of students moving from school to car, trying, straining, as they all do, to somehow look cool while being picked up by mom.
Michelle Wie, five minutes removed from a fifth-period P.E. class, slips her 6-foot frame into the car, pops on the head-phones from her MP3 player, rocking the Black Eyed Peas jam — Where Is the Love? — which she is determined to play to death again. Bo, Michelle’s 38-year-old mom, slides the transmission into drive. Dad B.J., 43, takes a call on his cell. And Michelle, who turned 14 last Oct. 11, unwraps her prepractice snack and wrinkles her nose. She has yet to acknowledge her parents. “Are these leftovers?” she asks in a slightly annoyed tone. As if Michelle would eat food, from, like, yesterday. She extends the paper plate a few inches farther away. “Is this old?”
Bo responds in her native Korean. The coffee cake is fresh, of course, store bought this morning.
Michelle shrugs, turns up the volume and sips from the bottle of milk.
In her body language, in her imperious dismissiveness of her parents’ obvious efforts to please, Michelle comes across as a typical 14-year-old. But every day when school ends, she has to make the journey from bored teenager to stolid professional golfer, if not in fact then in spirit. Every day. A little.
Bo steers the Lexus down the school driveway, south on Fern Street to the H-1 Highway and then east through tunnels bored into the verdant, jagged karst that rings Honolulu. Dad’s phone chirps, Mom drives, daughter cranks her music. It is a version of a scene replayed a few million times every day across the country. Then B.J. hangs up. The caller was an official from the PGA of America. They want Michelle. They were wondering, specifically, if she might be available (assuming she qualified) for the Junior Ryder Cup this September.
“Junior Ryder Cup?” Michelle says, as if weighing the words.
“There’s a boys’ and girls’ team,” B.J. explains.
“A girls’ team?” Michelle asks, sounding incredulous, repeating what her dad said as she weighs the offer. Her tone sometimes takes on this unintended petulance, as if she can’t believe what she’s hearing. A million moms and dads — a hundred million, a billion — have heard their children employ this exact intonation, as in, We’re having soup?
“Uh, no,” Michelle says and cranks up the volume.
B.J. shrugs. “It’s not the same course as the real Ryder Cup,” he explains. “It’s not even the same city. The players get to attend the real Ryder Cup.” He nods, as if he is now coming to the same conclusion as Michelle. “Not so much value there.”
Michelle receives more than a dozen golf invitations and a hundred media requests every month, he explains. “It’s too many,” B.J. says, shaking his head. “But it’s easy after a while. You say no. To everything. You have to. Otherwise, no time, for practice, for school, for the mall.” Managing Team Wie is so time consuming that B.J. and Bo haven’t played a round themselves in four years. B.J. would like to hire someone to help with Michelle’s media relations, but U.S. Golf Association rules forbid an amateur’s hiring a flack. So B.J., who has taken a sabbatical from the University of Hawaii, at which he is a professor of transportation, is getting a crash Ph.D. in media management. The final exam is saying no, over and over and over again. But they keep calling. Newspapers in South Korea, Japan, China, South Africa; late-night TV shows in New York, L.A. and London; radio hosts, sportswriters, photographers. They are calling, of course, because of what everyone is absolutely sure will happen once this transformation is complete.
Bo pulls the Lexus into the parking lot of Olomana Golf Links, an 18-hole public course in a valley between vertiginous mountains that have clumps of mist clinging to the peaks. Michelle steps from the car. She seems impossibly long, and though she unfolds her arms and legs efficiently, her length lends her movements the impression of indolence. She stretches, squints into a burst of sun that has fought through the haze. She shrugs. Yawns. But already, the music has been shut off, the limbering up has begun. She’s preparing to play.
When Michelle emerges from the clubhouse, the teenage girl has vanished. In her place, wearing tan golf shoes, khaki slacks, a yellow polo shirt and a Titleist cap, is the athlete we are becoming familiar with. But today’s passage from school to course, from student to golfer, from teenager to the Future of Golf is not yet complete. She slips into the passenger seat of a golf cart, and B.J. helms them to the 10th fairway, where he lays out two dozen balls. Bo reads the distance through her range finder.
“One-hundred-twelve yards,” she shouts. B.J. hands Michelle her nine-iron, and she proceeds to drop 12 straight balls within 20 feet of the pin. It is an impressive display, but something is bothering Michelle and B.J.
B.J. tells his wife in Korean to check the distance. She holds the range finder up again and nods. “One-hundred-twelve … meters! Sorry.” She smiles. “One-hundred-twenty-two yards.”
Michelle sighs. Parents. Whatever. And she plops another dozen onto the green, these landing within 15 feet of the cup.
Later, on the par-5 15th, after trying out a few new fairway woods, which she carries an easy 250 yards, she shakes her head, explaining that she doesn’t like the way the grips feel. After putting the covers back on the clubs, B.J. lays out a few more balls and out comes the driver.
Much has been written and spoken about Michelle Wie’s swing. It has been likened to Tiger Woods’s, to Vijay Singh’s and, mostly, to Ernie Els’s — hence her nickname, the Big Wiesy, after Els’s Big Easy — but unless you’ve seen and heard it in person, you can’t really get a sense of her swing’s astonishing perfection. As she addresses the ball with one waggle, takes her customary one practice swing and then launches a Titleist nearly 310 yards (about 20 longer than her normal drive), you realize that this is perhaps the most efficient transfer of energy from a moving object (her clubhead) to a stationary one (the ball) that you have ever beheld.
David Leadbetter, the noted instructor and coach, has never seen this much power in a 14-year-old, girl or boy. “Michelle creates a tremendous amount of leverage with her swing,” he explains. “You look at most girls her age, and the swings are very willowy. With Michelle there are these elements of coil and power that are seldom seen.” This swing seems to be the perfect illustration of Newtonian physics. The energy generated by Michelle’s powerful hips, slender shoulders, long arms and soft hands, seems to multiply exponentially by the time it reaches the ball. You want to send an object from here to there and need to figure out the correct trajectory and velocity? That’s easy: Shrink whatever it is to the size of a golf ball, and let Michelle Wie hit it.
With each swing, she drives home the point: Today’s evolution is complete. She is a golfer. And suddenly, all that we expect of her, all that we are sure she will be, all that we want and need her to become, seems not only possible but inevitable.
Think of today as one part of the larger evolution that Michelle is making. It will be a mutation of the soul and the spirit that will span months and years; it will involve enlarging muscle mass and increasing brain power; it will include the hormonal process by which a girl becomes a woman; it will entail the spiritual journey of a gifted amateur into a professional; and, even more burdensome and fascinating, it will require Michelle to publicly assume the role for which she is being cast — the greatest women’s golfer ever, a potential savior of her sport. And as if that weren’t enough homework for even an A student like Michelle, she’s also supposed to become the first girl who can beat the boys.
Michelle Wie has arrived at a moment when women’s golf is more than ever in the shadow of the men’s game, when despite the tremendous gifts of Annika Sorenstam and the wave of talented Korean golfers who have come on the scene in the past few years, the game seems increasingly an afterthought. Prize money has barely budged in five years. Total endorsement fees on the LPGA tour are estimated to be about equal to the $78 million per year that Tiger commands.
Now here comes this gorgeous Asian-American teenager who is the youngest winner of a USGA adult championship (the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, at age 13) and the youngest woman to qualify for an LPGA event (the 2002 LPGA Takefuji Classic, which she entered at 12). In March, at the LPGA’s first major of 2004, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, she finished fourth, a mere four shots behind winner Grace Park. Ten weeks earlier, after shooting a second-round 68, she missed the cut in the Sony Open, a PGA Tour event, by just one stroke. Indeed, the plan is not merely for Michelle to dominate women’s golf. The Wies expect that to happen. What Michelle intends to do, what golf experts and her own coaches believe she can do, is compete on the men’s Tour. She has said her goal is to play in the Masters. (Augusta’s chairman, Hootie Johnson, said during this year’s event that he would welcome her if she qualified.) We’re not talking about a novelty appearance, an Annika or Suzy Whaley teeing it up with the men, only to remind us, with their shorter drives and spinless approach shots and loose short games, why golf tournaments are gender-specific. Michelle is already hitting longer than some male pros. If she can bridge the gender gap and regularly contend against the Tigers, the Vijays and the Ernies, her marketing potential and crossover appeal will enable her to tap into what she calls “Tiger Woods money.”
Wait a second. This girl is 14. She has an honors geometry test next week. She’s going to the mall to see Starsky & Hutch this afternoon. She’s never even won a women’s pro event — she’ll have another shot beginning on May 6, at the Michelob Ultra Open — and we’re talking about her beating men? You can dismiss her as little more than potential. But then watch that swing, watch her play, spend some time with her, and it all starts to seem inevitable.
How’s this for inevitable? It’s 1997 and the single, a middle-aged weekend duffer, shows up at Honolulu’s busy Ala Wai Golf Course, and the starter asks the handsome Korean family with the gangly daughter if they’d mind playing as a foursome. They shrug; why not?
Playing from the whites, the gangly girl tees off first, and perhaps the weekend duffer should know what sort of afternoon he is in for when she knocks it 200 yards into the middle of the fairway. The duffer sizes her up. Around 5’4″, long arms and legs, a hurried, slightly awkward swing that has yet to be tamed by coaching or lessons. A lucky shot.
About halfway through the front nine, however, the girl, Michelle, though her golf etiquette is a bit rough — she walks through putters’ lines and taps her foot impatiently while waiting for her partners to play out — has established herself as the most consistent player in this foursome, outplaying her father, who carries a two handicap, and her mother, a four. For the duffer this is becoming some sort of nightmare. This kid, who looks as if she’s barely 11 or 12, is taking him by two strokes a hole.
The duffer’s game goes from bad to worse. She’s beginning to drive him mad, this girl with her blank expression and preposterously long tee shots. After seven holes she’s at even par. He’s never sniffed par, he confides to his playing partners, never even played with anyone who has broken par. The awkwardness of the situation has him pressing: He’s slicing his tee shots, struggling with his short game, three-putting easy greens. By the 9th hole he’s a sweating, angry mass of twitches and hitches. Finally, after another triple bogey, he suddenly declares that he has a previous engagement and prepares to head back to the clubhouse. Before he goes, he pauses. “Kid, how old are you?” he asks Michelle.
“I’m eight,” she answers.
So was she born to play golf, as it now appears? “I thought it was supposed to be easy,” Michelle says. “I thought par was normal, so if I shot three over, I didn’t think I was that good.”
Her parents — who emigrated from South Korea to Hawaii in 1988 and are now U.S. citizens — are gifted athletes. Bo, South Korea’s 1985 women’s amateur champion, taught B.J. the game after they were married. They knew that something strange was going on within weeks of Michelle’s picking up a club as a four-year-old. When the girl was seven, her parents began taking her to the course. “We started in July 1997, and by August she was three over for nine,” B.J. recalls. “No mulligans. Real scores. We were looking at each other like this was weird.”
But the Wies were not prepared for what they saw Michelle doing on the golf courses of Waikiki in the next few years. “At first I was just calling my parents in L.A. to boast to them,” B.J. says, “but we weren’t sure how you manage something like this.”
An only child of doting parents, Michelle had always been precocious. Bo had begun teaching her the alphabet when she was six months old; by age one she was spelling. When she was in fourth grade, “my mom and dad would tear a page out of the dictionary and have me memorize it,” Michelle recalls. B.J. taught her algebra when she was nine, trigonometry when she was 10. There are five Ph.D.’s on B.J.’s side of the family (including the one B.J. holds, in transportation sciences from the University of Pennsylvania). “We realized that academically we could push her to the highest levels,” says B.J. “But we stopped doing that. We started putting those energies into golf.”
In a sense, Michelle’s early success simply reinforces the stereotype of Asian-Americans as the model minority. Korean-American parents are famously education-obsessed; add to that Michelle’s being an only child, and throw in her athletic precocity, and it is hard to imagine a situation in which a child could be the focus of more parental love, support and pressure. But for the last four years B.J. and Bo have been aware that their child has the potential to be more than just another very bright Asian-American student or professional golfer.
“My role model,” B.J. says, “is Tiger Woods.”
The family has gathered in a suite at a hotel by the Waialae Country Club, where Michelle played in the Sony. They are standing on the balcony, analyzing the course, and Michelle is observing that from up here, it looks like a fairly straight up-and-down 18. But it’s not, she says, because the wind can play havoc with your ball. She practiced on this course for weeks to learn to put enough topspin on the ball to keep her drives low, especially at the turn, where the fairways run along the shoreline.
It’s late afternoon, and the sun dapples the ocean swells, and that same wind that can hold up your ball is rustling the rain trees, obscuring the sound of the nearby waterfalls. The Wies are exceedingly comfortable around one another. Bo and Michelle often link arms or legs if they are seated together; B.J. and Michelle practically finish each other’s sentences. Considering the amount of time they spend together — the parents travel with Michelle, the family does almost all interviews en masse, B.J. and Bo remain her primary managers, and until recently B.J. was her caddie for LPGA and amateur events — there is remarkably little tension.
There is, however, hanging over the suite, the heaviness of collective expectation. Not even Tiger at 14 inspired so much conjecture and wonder, nor did he play in a PGA Tour event until he was 16. Then again, Michelle Wie has the advantage — or will it become a disadvantage? — of coming A.T., After Tiger, when the financial and athletic possibilities for a young, champion golfer have expanded to a degree that was unimaginable a decade ago. Her parents have to balance raising a daughter with managing a future corporation whose earnings are impossible to handicap.
“I want Michelle to have a really good life,” says B.J., “a thousand times better than our life. I want her to live in a really nice house and do a lot of good things for poor people. I want her to be happy and rich and famous and popular.”
“That’s what every parent wants,” Bo agrees.
Michelle began practicing signing her name when she was three. “I never wanted to be normal,” she explains. “Being famous is pretty cool. Like I went to this restaurant, and they gave me free dessert. And I got my dad out of a speeding ticket in Georgia. We were stopped on our way to a tournament, and the policeman recognized me and then was really nice. He was like, Just don’t speed anymore.”
But even Tiger Woods could tell you there is a downside to accepting all that “Tiger Woods money.” The Wie family is going through the first flush of global fame and has yet to experience the very real costs that attend that sort of recognition. While a few onlookers gawk or stop her for autographs when she is out shopping at Ala Moana mall with her friends, she does not yet have to make her way through Old Navy with the sort of gallery that would swarm Tiger if he stopped in for a pair of socks.
There should be a term for the risks of becoming too good too fast, of surfacing into victory, fame, wealth and celebrity too rapidly, sort of an athletic version of the bends. Wasn’t Jennifer Capriati stricken by this malady? Aren’t we relieved that LeBron James seems to be immune? Don’t we worry that Freddy Adu might succumb? When you spend time with the Wies, talking with them about their future and how they might still shape or avert or even avoid the incoming waves of pressure and responsibility, you get the sense that they are still a little naive about exactly what awaits them. This moment they are living through — the importuning of sports marketers and the courtship of would-be agents, the unsolicited advice, the interviews and the requests — is just new enough not to be maddening. Surely, however, it will become so. Couldn’t the forces of commerce, athleticism and, oh, yeah, puberty start to tug B.J., Bo and Michelle in differing and possibly conflicting directions?
Michelle already has an attitude toward practice that verges on the Iversonian. “I’m not a big fan of practice,” she says, pulling her legs up under her as she sits back on the sofa. “It’s really not that interesting. It’s just hitting ball after ball.”
“She really enjoys it,” B.J. insists, “but practice is repetitive, the same swing, the same putt, the same rhythm. We do things to make it more exciting, but it still tends to be very boring.”
Michelle smirks, “We fight every five minutes in practice.”
B.J. nods. “Fighting is almost part of our practice routine.”
But the steady emphasis on golf uber alles has not made Michelle resent her parents. “I think they’re guiding me the right way. My parents know me so well it’s kind of scary. It’s really freaky. I’ll make a facial expression, and my mom will know exactly what I’m thinking.”
“We can read her expressions with 100 percent accuracy,” Bo says, laughing.
“I think every day that you guys are crazy,” Michelle says to her parents. “Since you spend so much time with me, you pay so much attention to the smallest details. Everything is on me. It’s really bad sometimes, because sometimes I want to do one thing and they want to do another. And they’re like, Let’s vote, and that’s not fair because they get two votes and I get one.”
B.J. smiles. “It’s good that she goes to school full time. To get away.”
Despite the banter, and Michelle’s insistence that she prefers shopping to practice, she makes that trip to the course every day. Only after a tournament will B.J. and Bo let her take what they call a one-week “vacation.” Michelle accepts her schedule as the burden of her talent.
But she is now in, or is entering, that hormonal tunnel of pubescence — boys, teen angst, simple rebelliousness — and who knows what might emerge on the other side?
Michelle scoffs at the notion of teen angst. “Everyone is saying that your teenage years are really hard,” she says. “But they’re actually really easy. You’re not working, you’re not paying taxes, you just have to go to school.”
And play golf?
“Yeah, but that’s fun. I love tournaments, there is nothing more fun than going to tournaments. I love the adrenaline, being able to focus and then being able to get that adrenaline under control.”
She’s always been in control. She has amazed every coach and teacher — on and off the course — with her ability to mimic and master. Casey Nakama, the first professional to coach Michelle, at the Olomana Golf Links in Oahu, was more impressed by her dedication and eagerness to learn than by her natural talent. “She just works really hard,” he says, “and she picks up techniques really fast. You show her something once, she watches it, and then she tries it a few times, and she’s got it.” He recalls one of her first bunker lessons when she had just turned 10. He was showing her how open the club face should be, how the club should hit the sand. He demonstrated by hitting a few shots for her.
“Then she jumped into the bunker,” Nakama recalls, “and by the fourth shot she was hitting it just right, copying it perfectly. I was thinking, Wow, this is not normal.”
That summer she started playing in local women’s tournaments. At first, because she was so tall, the golfers she was competing against didn’t know how young she was. “I was like this 10-year-old beating these 17-year-olds,” Michelle recalls. “When they found out how old I was, it made some people really mad.” In May 2001 she won the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, Hawaii’s most prestigious women’s amateur tournament, and that August she won the Hawaii State Women’s Stroke Play Championship.
By then, word of Michelle had spread throughout the golf industry. Gary Gilchrist, the director of golf at the David Leadbetter Junior Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., first saw her a year later. He watched her on the driving range and knew immediately that she was “amazingly gifted. I have never seen a 12-year-old hit like that, boy or girl. But it wasn’t just the hitting, it was the focus, the concentration, the composure. If she hit a bad shot, it didn’t seem to bother her at all.”
Gilchrist has worked with Michelle ever since, helping also to hone her short game. “She now has an awesome short game for a 14-year-old,” Gilchrist says. “She can adapt. Combine that with her ability to concentrate, and you have a phenomenal package.”
Michelle takes the growth in her game in stride. “Even now, I think it’s supposed to be like this,” she says. While she has come to appreciate the game’s occasional frustrations — “If I did really good every time, it wouldn’t be fun either” — she says that the sport holds two great attractions for her. “Number one, you don’t have to run. And two is that you don’t have to be a certain weight or a certain size. You just go out and walk.”
“I don’t like Johnny Depp,” says B.J. He’s put posters of Tiger all over the family’s condominium in an affluent Honolulu suburb. Tiger festoons the den. He stalks the master bedroom and the hallway. And he watches Michelle as she sleeps.
“I won’t let him put Tiger up in the bathroom,” Michelle says. Nor will B.J. let Michelle put up posters of anyone else. If she had her choice, she would have Johnny Depp up on her walls.
The Wies are sitting in the wood-paneled office of the director of the Ko Olina Golf Club. They are sipping water from plastic bottles. It’s late afternoon, and you can smell the ocean. The clan is talking about Tiger, or, rather, B.J. is talking about Tiger, and Michelle is sitting there with arms folded.
“When we watched Tiger Woods winning the Masters, we noticed that his swing is very distinctive,” B.J. says. “It looks good. It is very dynamic. Very fast. Always in balance. It looks nice because his physical appearance is so attractive, and the swing looks good. So when we watched Tiger, I always told Michelle, swing like Tiger, play like Tiger. Michelle was seven.”
Michelle sighs, “I’m pretty used to hearing about Tiger.”
She met Tiger for the first time in January during the pro-am before the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua in Lahaina, Maui, riding a cart out to the 5th hole to watch him play. Tiger invited her to walk with him inside the ropes. Michelle was thrilled to meet the man whose image she was so familiar with, but she is not as determined to be like Tiger as B.J. would like.
“Tiger’s cool and all, but I don’t really like following anyone,” Michelle says with a shrug.
The question most often asked of Michelle is whether, like Tiger, she will go to college. She has stated several times that she wants to go to Stanford — Tiger’s alma mater — but as it becomes more obvious that many millions of dollars await her if she turns pro and especially if she begins competing in men’s tournaments, it doesn’t take a bachelor’s degree to figure out that skipping college might be the smarter move.
Leadbetter, for one, is skeptical of Michelle’s college plans. “You hear all sorts of talk about her going to Stanford,” he says. “Personally, I doubt it. She’s going to be too good, too soon…. If she were 21 right now, you would say she is ready to play the ladies’ tour full time. Let’s say she turned pro when she was 16, purely hypothetically. I would certainly keep her on a limited schedule at that point. You don’t want her to get fatigued, but her game can only improve with stiff competition.”
B.J. believes Michelle could continue her education but bypass college golf and as a freshman play in professional tournaments, probably men’s and women’s. That way, B.J. reasons, Michelle can get access to the lucrative sponsorship deals while still getting her college education. He does acknowledge, though, that sponsors handing over seven-or eight-figure sums might not be satisfied with their star pitchwoman sporting their gear in a freshman-studies class instead of, say, on the 18th green on the Sunday of a PGA Tour event.
Michelle, however, is determined to matriculate, and one can hear echoes of her family’s history of academic achievement in her justifications. “I want to have something to fall back on,” she says. “People look down on you if you don’t go to college. Everything is education. Whenever I watch movies, it’s like jocks are stupid. If I have a college degree, then people will respect me [for] more than just being a jock.”
The decision about college, it seems, will be Michelle’s. B.J. looks over at his daughter and concedes as much. “After high school we are going to have to back off,” he says.
Bo says she had thought about renting an apartment near Palo Alto, to be closer to Michelle while she attends Stanford.
“No way,” Michelle says with a shake of her head. “I’m not going to let her.”
There is a moment of silence around the table. “My parents don’t really overcontrol my life. They give me tips,” she says softly. “Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to not be Michelle Wie, to not be famous and stuff like that. When I think about it, though, I’m glad that I am who I am.”
But with all that she and her family will go through, will she still be glad when she becomes who we are sure she will become?