By Joe DePaolo
On Sunday, Michelle Wie won the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst, her long-awaited first professional major. Last spring, Sports On Earth spent a week inside the ropes with the one-time phenom at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway, N.J. Prior to this event, Wie recorded only one top 10 finish in 2012, and was struggling just to keep her tour card. But unbeknownst to Wie or anyone else at the time, the 2013 ShopRite Classic would serve as the springboard to a remarkable comeback. Here's a look back at the week that ended up being a turning point for Michelle Wie's career.
It was a brutally hot, late-May Thursday morning in Galloway, New Jersey -- pro-am day at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. Five golfers and their caddies were gathered around the 12th tee of the Bay Course at the Stockton Seaview Hotel & Golf Club, seeking shade wherever they could find it. At 8:00 a.m., the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees.
After four amateurs hit their drives, the group's lone professional, ranked 100th in the world, stepped up to the tee. Clad in an orange Nike polo shirt, with a dyed-pink ponytail pulled through her cap, she took a couple of practice swings with a fairway wood. The young golfer examined the hole, a sharp dogleg right, and took her stance.
Up close, her swing is a marvel to behold. At six feet tall, her lean frame gives her the ability to create a long and fluid motion, with incredible extension. Her flexibility is off the charts.
But the end result of that magnificent roundhouse swing on the 12th tee was a wayward drive, which tailed away from the center. She leaned, trying to coax it back toward the fairway, to no avail.
Michelle Wie found the rough -- a place that she has become all too familiar with.
The fact that she's a dismal 144th in driving accuracy on the LPGA tour only begins to tell the story of what is wrong with Michelle Wie's game. In no statistical category does she presently rank in the top 25. At 44th in putts per round, 68th in greens in regulation, and 82nd in sand saves, she is completely out of sync from tee to green.
Those dreadful stats have, not surprisingly, translated to poor results. In 10 starts this year prior to the ShopRite, Wie missed the cut five times. Her best finish was a tie for 28th at the LPGA Lotte, in her home state of Hawaii. She'd amassed less than $30,000 in purse earnings in 2013. Two seasons ago, she made roughly that amount per tournament.
Somehow, Wie, now 23, has managed to remain incredibly upbeat -- at least when she's between the ropes. During the ShopRite pro-am, she frequently offered encouragement to her playing partners. At one point, when one of the amateurs was struggling, Wie spoke to him for several minutes, in an effort to get him to relax and have fun. It worked: He began to play better after the chat.
"People get nervous when they play in pro-ams," Wie said. "There's no need to be embarrassed. I try to remind them to have fun out there."
It's possible that the specter of playing with the one-time wunderkind intimidated the amateur. The daunting seaside layout and the spectacular views offered at a number of the holes may also have contributed to his nerves. One thing that certainly couldn't be blamed, though, was the size of the gallery. Michelle Wie's parents, mother Bo and father B.J., were the only two spectators.
They stood approximately 50 yards apart as they watched their daughter's tee shot on 12. These positions are the norm. They are seldom together on the course. Many times, they're actually on opposite sides of the hole, in an effort to secure prime viewing positions. On pro-am day, with no one else in the gallery, this was not an issue. Still, they frequently kept their distance. And after the shot was hit, they made their way down the fairway with an intensity normally reserved for Sunday at Augusta.
Wie followed her errant tee shot with a mediocre approach on the par-4, 40 feet away from the flag. She walked down the fairway, taking practice swings with an invisible club, searching for the form that propelled her into the national consciousness a decade ago, when she was just 13 and played in the final group at the prestigious Kraft Nabisco Championship -- an LPGA major. Looking lost, Michelle Wie called out for help.
"Omma!" The Korean word for mom.
Omma was close by. She usually is.
* * *
Bo Wie and her husband B.J. have been with Michelle for every step of her one-of-a-kind golf journey. Longtime residents of Honolulu, Hawaii, the parents picked up and moved to Palo Alto, California when their daughter began attending college at Stanford in 2007. They then followed her to her current residence of Jupiter, Florida, after she graduated.
B.J. and Bo have attended every competitive round that their daughter has ever played. In the process, they have demonstrated an unfailing loyalty through a period in which she has struggled mightily. The couple has remained highly supportive of their only child, and extremely close to her.
Some observers wonder if they're too close. Kay Cockerill, an analyst for The Golf Channel who has covered the LPGA Tour for the network since its inception in 1995, believes that B.J. and Bo would do well to take a step back.
"You need to criticize her parents," Cockerill said. "For being too involved and making too many decisions and micromanaging her, and not letting her be more herself. There's a lot of positive things her parents do as well that allow her to be who she is. [But] they need to back off. Let the child grow."
For Michelle Wie, a life with her parents in close proximity is the only one she has ever known. She speaks of it fondly.
"We were always such a close-knit family," she said. "We did everything together. We went on a lot of vacations. We traveled a lot. They were always there to support me."
Indeed, they were there for her at age 10, when she became the youngest person, male or female, ever to qualify for an adult USGA Championship, the Women's Amateur Public Links. They were there over the next three years, as she became a force on the Hawaiian amateur circuit. And they were there for that remarkable week at the Kraft Nabisco Championship (better known to many as the Dinah Shore), when the precocious 13-year-old took the golf world by storm. Cockerill recalled the electric atmosphere that surrounded Wie when she first arrived on the scene.
"It was incredible," Cockerill said. "She was an extreme talent with a beautiful golf swing, and the ability to hit shots beyond her years at age 13. And beyond that, she seems to have sort of a magnetism to her. People are drawn to her. That's something very special that a lot of talented people don't have."
Her unique combination of magnetism and talent was enough to score endorsement deals with Nike and Sony immediately upon turning professional in 2005. Though she didn't win an LPGA event, the two-year stretch from 2005 and 2006 undoubtedly served as her peak. During that time, she notched top five finishes in four consecutive major championships. Since, she has failed to attain that placing even once.
She's had her moments. In 2009, she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, her first LPGA crown. Later that season she was one of the heroines of the Solheim Cup Matches -- the LPGA equivalent of the Ryder Cup. The 3 1/2 points she captured for the American side helped propel the squad to a 16-12 victory over Europe. The next year, she captured a second individual tournament, the CN Canadian Women's Open.
But that's it. Just two LPGA victories. No major top fives since 2007. And after a number of attempts at the beginning of her career, she hasn't even tried to tee it up with the boys since 2008, when she missed the cut by nine strokes at the PGA Tour's Reno-Tahoe Open. This was the girl who, at age 14, boldly told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes that she aspired to play in the Masters. (And came pretty close to doing it when she reached the quarterfinals of the Men's Amateur Public Links in 2005. A victory there would've earned her a Masters invite.) By her own exceedingly strict metric, her career can only be considered a failure at this point.
Wie's inability to deliver on the extraordinary promise she showed in her youth has the golf community baffled. Many have opinions on why she hasn't broken through. Suzann Pettersen, currently third in the world rankings, recalled a classic battle that she had with Wie at the 2011 Solheim Cup. Pettersen, representing Europe, birdied the last three holes of her Sunday singles showdown with Wie to take the contest by a 1-up margin. The point that Pettersen earned for her team proved decisive. Europe won the matches 15-13.
Pettersen believes that the charged atmosphere at the Solheim Cup matches is the type of environment in which Wie typically thrives, and that she could use more of that energy.
"She played fantastic golf, and I think the surroundings at the Solheim bring her passion and her heart into it," Pettersen said. "I think sometimes she plays with a lot of pressure from herself. And just seeing her in that environment an entire week really brings out her enjoyment of being out there playing golf, the way she did growing up."
The subtext of Pettersen's comment, that Wie hasn't been enjoying the game lately, seemed applicable during that brutally hot Thursday pro-am in Galloway. It was difficult to find pleasure in any outdoor activity under the glare of the blazing sun.
Yet there she was, grinding out the workday. On almost every single hole, after she and the amateurs finished, Wie remained behind for several minutes to practice her short game. She was trying to get a feel for the greens, and trying to perfect her new putting stroke -- which features a remarkable contortion where she bends a full 90 degrees at the waist, forming a perfect upside-down "L." It is backbreaking to look at, let alone attempt.
Jersey inferno be damned, she attempted it well over a hundred times on pro-am day. The intense practice session in adverse conditions made it difficult to believe that Wie's recent struggles can be chalked up to lack of work ethic.
"I put in all the effort that I can," Wie said. "I pride myself on working really hard, and trying the hardest I can every week."
She tried to focus and lose herself in the game, but could only accomplish this to a certain degree under the watchful eyes of her parents, who were likewise undaunted by the heat. Wie insists that she relishes the involvement of her parents in her life. But in light of this declaration, it's interesting to consider that she cites painting as one of her favorite hobbies.
Like golf, painting is a solitary endeavor.
* * *
Just like the day before, there was little fanfare as Michelle Wie uncorked her opening drive of the 2013 ShopRite LPGA Classic at 7:48 a.m. on Friday, May 30. About two dozen fans were congregated around the first tee, and none of them made a sound when they saw her drive sail left, landing in the deep rough.
Her second shot was equally dreadful, also in the rough. Her third, however, was a pretty flop shot that trickled to about five feet away from the cup. It was the kind of shot that evoked memories of Wie's halcyon days. Her peers believe she remains capable of such wizardry on a regular basis.
"She can still hit shots that nobody else on tour can hit," said Stacy Lewis, the second ranked player in the world. "She's just that talented."
Wie drained the subsequent par putt, but was forced to scramble again on the second hole, as she flew the green with her approach shot. A nice chip put her to within four feet, and she once again holed the resulting knee-knocker.
Both saves were met with extremely loud applause and demonstrative fist pumps from Bo, who, thanks to her over-the-top celebrations, was impossible not to notice. At most tournaments, Bo, in stark contrast with her low-key husband, is often the loudest person in her daughter's gallery. Wie acknowledges that she's generally aware of her mom's presence during competitive rounds.
"It's hard not to be," she said, laughing.
Those two early par saves helped Wie to settle in. From there, she went on to play a terrific opening round of 3-under-par 68, which put her two shots off the pace.
The grouping that Wie drew for the first two rounds of the tournament seemed to help her post that solid score. She played with LPGA veterans Alison Walshe and Sarah Jane Smith. The trio got along swimmingly, and chitchat came easy for Wie, particularly with Walshe, whom she cites as a longtime friend.
Whispers of locker room jealousy have followed Wie around for years. She cashed in on multi-million dollar endorsement deals years before she even won a tournament. She also gets an amount of press coverage that her current play doesn't merit. It stands to reason that some of her peers might be bothered by all this. But if that's the case, the rank-and-file don't let on publicly.
"I think once you get to know her, she's such a sweet girl," said Beatriz Recari, one of the LPGA's elite young players. "We can't forget that she has done a lot for women's golf."
Wie's performance warranted her being summoned to the media center, where roughly a half-dozen inquisitors awaited. Though she majored in communications at Stanford, this is the part of the job that she hates. The median age of the (predominantly male) press corps at the ShopRite appeared to exceed 40. She'd had a fun day on the links, but that was over now. This was strictly business.
The golfer was cordial, and her answers were expansive. But they were also carefully constructed. This is a young woman who's spent a decade in the public eye, and is far too savvy to be caught off guard.
Wie was asked whether or not she was aware of some of the criticisms she received, and if she was tempted to tell those critics to, as the questioner put it, "take a hike."
"You can't please everyone," she said. "I'm not going to go around my way living my life trying to please everyone, because in the end it doesn't really matter. They're not the ones that are living my life. They're not the ones that ultimately are in my life. So I just am so grateful for my friends, my family and for the people inside my circle that believe in me."
Though B.J. and Bo Wie, of course, figure prominently in that circle, they are not its only members. At the ShopRite, the roster included three others -- her manager Jeehae Lee, her caddy Duncan French, and fellow tour pro Christina Kim (who is also French's girlfriend). This group is very protective of her. They look to shield her from the rabble-rousers in the media, who won't stop asking, "What's wrong?"
* * *
Having dropped three strokes in her first 11 holes of the second round, falling back to even par for the tournament, all appeared lost for Michelle Wie at Galloway. But just then, the 23-year-old turned back the clock, and reminded everybody what all of the hype in her formative years was about.
Wie's run began with the par-5 3rd, when she hit an exquisite approach shot from out of the left greenside rough to within two feet for a kick-in birdie. Then, at 4, she hit her second shot to about eight feet and made another birdie. On 5, she absolutely smashed her drive -- leaving just 60 yards for her second into the par-4. She knocked a wedge stiff inside of six feet.
Things were getting serious. Already back to 2-under-par, Wie had an extremely good look at birdie to get her back to minus-3, where she began the day. On an afternoon where the winds were kicking up, an even par round was a terrific score. Recognizing the gravity of the putt, Wie took an extra moment to study before calmly sinking it.
The three consecutive birdies ignited her, the gallery, and, of course, Bo. (Despite the fact that several hundred people were now in the gallery, Bo could still be heard quite clearly.) That bright, wide smile that America was first introduced to a decade ago, but hadn't seen in a while, was present on Michelle Wie's face. She was happy -- perhaps as happy as she'd been, on course at least, for some time.
Days like this, streaks like this, flashes of brilliance like this, make you wonder if Michelle Wie can be saved. And they make you wonder how, exactly, to define the word "saved," in this context. Does it mean she can become a top women's player? Does it mean she can become the top women's player? Does it mean she can fulfill her ambitious childhood prophecy of teeing it up at Augusta? Cockerill, for one, is willing to consider those first two possibilities, though not the third.
"I think she still has every bit of possibility and potential to be a great player. It would be a very, very challenging ride up a big, steep hill for her to get to number one in the world. But is it possible? Sure, it's possible."
Wie couldn't have cared less about her long-term prospects right then. She was on a roll and wanted to see how far she could take it. Her streak of close approach shots ended on the 6th, where she hit a respectable second to 25 feet. But despite the lengthy putt that awaited her, she wasn't giving up on the birdie. She examined it from all angles, traversing almost the entire green in order to do so. Then there was a brief consultation with French, who offered his two cents.
The gallery was dead silent, but ready to burst. After what seemed like forever, Wie took back her putter and struck the ball. It was on its way … on line ... and good!
As the putt fell, Wie unleashed a violent, Tiger-like, uppercut fist pump. The crowd went crazy. Bo went extra crazy, screaming and clapping. Even B.J., remarkably stoic all weekend, let down his guard and put his hands together. If only for a moment, his daughter was back.
Four straight birdies were enough to draw the attention of the The Golf Channel, which was broadcasting the tournament nationally. They sent a camera crew to follow Wie, and dispatched Kay Cockerill to commentate from the ground. The birdie run had thrust her into second place at four under par, just two strokes off the lead. The gallery was growing. The anticipation building. The broken phenom was waking up the echoes, and everyone wanted to be a part of it.
* * *
Wie, Walshe and Smith were faced with a lengthy wait to tee off on the par-3 7th, and this gave The Golf Channel an opportunity to set up the narrative. In order to do this, the cameraman stood less than five feet away from the young golfer, with a massive camera perched atop his shoulder. Wie tried to act as if it wasn't there, but that proved nearly impossible. She turned away, staring out over the sparkling blue bay a few hundred yards off in the distance.
The trio of golfers paced about, and tried to strike up a chat to kill time, but the banter wasn't coming as easily as it did before. They briefly kicked around the topic of baseball.
"Nothing like a baseball game in the summer," Wie said.
Walshe nodded her agreement, and an awkward silence ensued. The dynamic had changed. For 33 holes, a distinct walk-in-the-park vibe accompanied this threesome. With Wie so close to the lead, and The Golf Channel's spotlight on, that air of conviviality was gone. It was replaced with tension.
The group ahead was still playing. The golfers baked in the scorching, late-afternoon sun. All the while, the cameraman was within arm's length.
Just after the 10-minute mark, the green mercifully cleared. Wie had the honor, and after a couple of practice swings, she hit a long iron to about 30 feet. She smiled at her caddy, and counted herself fortunate to hit the green on the challenging hole, particularly after such a lengthy delay.
After 2-putting for par, Wie strode to the 8th tee, still riding high from the birdie run. She was blissfully unaware that in 30 minutes, her tournament hopes would be all but dashed, thanks to a random man in a golf cart.
A split-second before she was ready to hit her drive on the 319-yard par-4, a tournament volunteer drove his cart about 50 yards in front of the tee box -- directly in the golfer's sightline. He drove comically slow across the cart path, in an effort not to make noise. The volunteer had no clue that it was not the sound that served as a distraction, but rather the fact that he was directly in Michelle Wie's line of sight.
"Sir?!" Wie cried. The man in the cart did not hear her. He continued to sputter along with the urgency of an early-bird dinner patron. The entire crowd followed Wie's cue, and tried to get his attention. They failed as well. It took about 30 seconds before the man eventually cleared out.
Wie's rhythm was disrupted completely. She proceeded to hit a long iron way right -- out of bounds. She grunted loudly and banged her club into the ground.
It was the first sign she'd shown all week of the temper that got her into trouble as recently as a year ago. At the 2012 HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore, Wie smashed her club and used profanity following a bad shot. Year-round LPGA observers like Cockerill say that she has successfully curbed her anger and is largely upbeat on the course, despite her poor play.
"I'm very impressed with her positive nature and her optimism. She has a lot of negative baggage that she's experienced. A lot of negative memories that she's accumulated for such a young player. And for her to look past that, and continually look forward … that takes a lot of belief in yourself. That takes a lot of determination. And you have to tip your hat to her for that."
Hat tip or not, Wie suffered a momentary slip. Still, after the initial outburst, she did keep it together, at least outwardly. Internally, she was apparently unable to shake it off. Her third shot flew the green, and her fourth left her with an extremely ticklish eight-foot downhill putt. Wie missed her bogey putt, and dropped two shots to fall back to 2-under. A follow-up bogey on the home hole took her all the way down to 1-under-par. She finished with a deeply disappointing 2-over 73 in the 2nd round.
To her credit, Wie did not blame the man in the cart for the collapse of her round. She wrote it off as the unlucky break that it was.
"It didn't really affect me that much. It was just a really bad swing," she said with a laugh.
Wie went through the motions of talking about her standing going into Sunday's final round, as though she would factor into the proceedings. But she was unable to muster much conviction. She fielded several short questions, did a two-minute stand-up with The Golf Channel, and quickly retreated to the safety of her circle.
* * *
At no point during the final round of the ShopRite LPGA Classic was Wie a threat to win. Her chances had taken a devastating blow with those two closing holes on Saturday. The 2nd hole on Sunday served as the knockout punch.
With what Kay Cockerill called a "two-club wind" blowing squarely in her face, Wie made a mess of the par-4 -- missing the fairway off the tee, and the green with her approach. After her recovery shot, she was left with a lengthy par putt, which she missed. Then she suffered the ultimate indignity, rolling a very short bogey putt past the hole.
B.J. and Bo, apart for most of the weekend, stood together at this critical juncture. When their daughter was hurting, their instinct was not to run away, but to get closer to her. By all appearances, these are overzealous parents who have not given their daughter the space she needs to grow up. But theirs are mistakes of the heart. Unlike so many parents of young prodigies in sports and entertainment, B.J. and Bo Wie clearly love their child, not her money.
Michelle Wie didn't make eye contact with her parents. But then, she didn't need to. She knew they were there.
"I know when I hit a good shot, they clap. And even if I don't, they always come up behind me and pat my back, and tell me I'm doing good."
This proved out after she tapped in for double-bogey. Omma, trying futilely to mask her sadness, saved her heartiest clap of the weekend for the moment her daughter was at her lowest.
All in all, it was a very respectable week. Wie finished at 2-over-par, good for a tie for 9th -- a finish that she would duplicate a week later at the LPGA Championship. Despite a missed cut in last week's Walmart Northwest Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G, Wie is hoping the two recent top tens are a sign that she's rounding into form in time for the LPGA's signature event, the U.S. Women's Open, which begins Thursday.
After finishing out on 18, Wie hugged her playing partners (one of whom, Karrie Webb, ended up winning the tournament). She hastily signed her scorecard, and headed out for her waiting entourage, which included all five members of the inner circle. Before she could reach them, though, she was intercepted by throngs of autograph seekers, lined up three-deep in a designated area.
One young boy brazenly asked for her golf glove. Wie chuckled and politely declined. This, however, was the only request that she turned down. Everyone else got what they asked for from Wie -- usually a picture, a signature, or both. Though Wie was visibly fatigued, she patiently accommodated the requests because they were made, predominantly, by youngsters.
Children comprise the demographic to which Wie is most fiercely loyal. She loves kids. Unlike the sponsors, tour officials, media members and all the other adults who want a piece of Michelle Wie, kids don't view her as a letdown. Where adults see a disappointment, kids see a peer. They want only two things from her -- a signature and a smile. Right now, this is all she has to give.
The signing continued for a few minutes, before Wie was asked to give a brief comment summing up her week.
"Overall, I fought hard and I'm pretty proud of the way I played. It was hard out there. It was really mentally and physically challenging playing out there in the wind."
Webb, the tournament winner, was about to emerge from the scoring tent, so Wie was quickly dismissed by the scribes. Still, more signers beckoned. As she labored through a second autograph session with her Omma nearby, B.J., Kim, and French were huddled in conference, dissecting the round. It figured to be, by far, the happiest post-game recap of the 2013 season. Yet judging by the long faces, it still didn't quite seem like enough.
Exhaustion eventually got the better of Wie, as she finished signing and met up with the gang. As they began to depart, she was corralled by one more young fan for a picture. Finally, as they crossed the street and walked back to the clubhouse, Michelle Wie broke out ahead of her posse and made her way inside the locker room.
At last, she was alone.
Michelle Wie played solid, consistent golf through much of the rest of 2013. She notched four more top 15 finishes, finished 41st on the 2013 LPGA money list, and improved her world ranking by nearly 40 positions.
This year, Wie has stepped up her game even more. The Hawaii native posted eight top 10 finishes from 12 starts prior to the Women's Open, highlighted by a victory at the LPGA Lotte Championship in her home state. Ranked 100th in the world prior to last year's ShopRite Classic, she entered play this week at No. 11, and trailed only world No. 1 player Stacy Lewis on the 2014 money list.
On Sunday, Michelle Wie punctuated her remarkable comeback with a victory in the 69th U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2. At minus two, she was the only player in the field to finish under par, en route to a two stroke win over Lewis. After so many near misses in major championships, she finally emerged with her signature triumph.
"Oh my God," a clearly overcome Wie told NBC through giggles just moments after she holed the winning putt on 18. "I can't believe this is happening."
It's been a decade since the happy-go-lucky 14-year-old first entered the mainstream consciousness with her memorable turn on 60 Minutes. She's already had a whole career's worth of twists and turns. It's easy to forget that Michelle Wie is, at 24, just three years older than Tiger Woods was during his transcendent 1997 Masters conquest.
Still, the 21-year-old Woods hadn't squandered the opportunities that Wie has had when she's been in major championship contention. And at that point, Woods hadn't faced the kind of criticism that Wie has. But on Sunday, all that felt like ancient history. The critics have now been silenced, and once again for Wie, the sky appears to be the limit.
"I just had a lot of fun," she told NBC's Steve Sands, when asked how she was able to handle the final round pressure she'd fallen prey to so many times before. "I just was so grateful for this opportunity."
Soaked in the champagne that she'd just been sprayed with on the 18th green by several of her peers, Wie concluded the interview, walked off the green, and headed for the scoring tent. Fittingly, the last person she encountered before NBC went off the air was Bo Wie. And in a moment that evoked memories of the embrace that Tiger Woods shared with his father Earl after the 1997 Masters, Michelle and Bo shared a long, emotional hug. It lasted about 15 seconds, before Omma finally let her go.
* * *
Joe DePaolo has written for The New York Times, ESPN.com, SB Nation Longform and many other notable print and Internet outlets. He is the author of No Finish Line, a profile of legendary Thoroughbred jockey Gary Stevens, and The Importance of Being Francesa, on sports radio pioneer Mike Francesa. He lives in New York City and can be found on Twitter @joe_depaolo, where he spends entirely too much time reminiscing about the "TGIF" sitcom lineup of the '90s.