It took 10 holes for Michelle Wie to be forced to laugh at last week's Sony Open, and no wonder. To that point her first round had been an unqualified disaster. Three double bogeys and two bogeys had left her a shocking eight over par as she waited on the 2nd tee of Waialae Country Club. (She began her round on the 10th hole.) The thousands of fans who had turned out to cheer on their hometown sweetheart had been reduced to sullen silence, but at least one person tagging along with Wie was still having some fun: playing partner Chris Couch. ¬∂ The 32-year-old Couch is everything the cool, controlled, 16-year-old Wie is not. He's a bass-fishing journeyman from Gainesville, Fla., who has struggled to make a living with his ragged game. Every time Wie tees it up, it's a media event, and a team of handlers has been retained to fuss over her every twitch. (At the Sony her entourage included no fewer than four staffers from the William Morris Agency.) Pretty much no one cares when or how Couch plays, except his two young sons and a handful of other intimates. But at the Sony these very different pros were thrown together by the PGA Tour's computers, and after 10 holes Couch finally wore down Wie with his scruffy charm. ¬∂ Idling on the 2nd tee, Couch stuffed yet another clump of chaw into his mouth and began rhapsodizing to the other member of the threesome, Camilo Villegas, about the pleasures of smokeless tobacco. Wie was looking on with something close to horror when Couch finally noticed her. "This isn't the kind of thing you're supposed to talk about in front of a lady," he said. "Anyway, it's a habit I wouldn't recommend to you." Wie, who was recently put on a low-fun diet by her trainer that forbids sugar and dairy products, couldn't help herself. Despite the crushing disappointment of her bad start, she did something uncharacteristic. She chuckled. For the day she would have as many laughs as birdies--one--as she staggered in with a nine-over 79 that left her 143rd in a 144-person field.
The Sony Open is likely to define Wie's career in the same way that the Masters has become Tiger Woods's measuring stick. Playing in her first Sony two years ago, Wie shot 72-68, missing the cut by a lone stroke in a performance that sent the hype machine into high gear. Last year she shot 75-74, the first glitch in a trying season that would see her shoot 80 in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open and be DQ'd in her pro debut.
Wie's opening 79 this year would have confirmed the slightly downward trajectory of her young career but for what followed: an electric 68 on Friday during which she ripped perfectly shaped drives, carved iron shots at the flag and showed off an imaginative, varied short game while making seven birdies, including four in a five-hole stretch midway through the round. Wie's 68 was bettered by only 11 players, and it provided an upbeat ending to her tournament even as she missed the cut by four strokes. "That felt awesome," Wie said afterward. "Just having four birdies in five holes on a PGA Tour course when the wind was howling, it feels like, Wow, I actually accomplished something."
And yet as good as she was on Friday, she had been just as bad the day before, typical of a player who exasperates and amazes in equal measure. Anyone with a healthy perspective has to marvel at what she is accomplishing. Woods didn't play in his first pro event until he was 16, and he missed the cut by a mile at the L.A. Open; Wie already has seven top 10 finishes on the LPGA tour. At the same time, Wie is in her fourth year of playing against big-time competition, and she is now a full-fledged pro making eight figures a year in endorsements, so it is clearly time to start delivering on her endless promise. Even she suffers from the whiplash between what is and what might be. "I kind of feel as if I want to do it all over again, but I don't want to do this round over again," she said on Friday of this year's Sony experience. "It's kind of mixed feelings right now. I'm disappointed. But you know, I have a lot more years to go. Hopefully I'll keep on getting better and better."
If the Sony is Wie's annual checkup, then we can pronounce her long game healthy. Her swing coach, David Leadbetter, says, "We continue to work toward our ideal vision of her swing: tighter, more compact, more controlled, better balanced. It's a work in progress and will continue to be, but she's making great progress."
Wie is striving for more control and more distance, a tough balancing act. She may be able to overpower LPGA courses, but the Sony threw into sharp relief how far she has to go to keep up with the men. Villegas was giving away four inches to the 6'1" Wie, but he often blew drives 30 yards past hers, while the 6'4" Couch was even farther down the fairway. "If Michelle is going to do what she wants to do--which is hold her own against the men--she needs to find another 15 to 20 yards," says Leadbetter.
To that end Wie's trainer, Paul Gagné of Montreal, spent a week in Honolulu in November instituting an intensive workout regimen for Wie, with the primary goal of increasing her upper-body strength and improving her balance. For three hours a day Wie did chin-ups, push-ups, bar dips and Olympic lifts, including the power snatch and the clean and jerk. She also jumped rope, threw a Swiss ball, stretched and received soft-tissue massages. "She went after it," says Gagné. "By the end of the week she was telling me she was having trouble washing her hair because she couldn't lift her arms above her shoulders."
Gagné also took Wie to a health-products store to lecture her on how certain foods can affect the chemicals in the brain. According to her trainer Wie has already added about five pounds of muscle and is up to 147 pounds.
She is working just as hard on her mental fitness, though the Sony made clear that she remains a work in progress in that area too. What stood out most about Wie's 79 was not the misplayed shots but the poor decision making that preceded them. On the 13th hole she was in the rough short and left of the green, with the flag tucked on a back-left finger of the putting surface. The stress-free play would've been to the right of the hole to leave a 10- or 15-footer for par. Instead she tried to get at the flag with a high-risk flop shot. She fluffed it short of the green and made a double bogey. On the long par-3 17th Wie fired at a sucker pin and short-sided herself in a bunker to the right of the green, leading to another double. Thinking clearly under duress is an acquired skill, and Wie's sports psychologist, Jim Loehr, says, "One of the areas Michelle needs to continue to improve in is the ability to close out rounds, close out tournaments, to play her best in pressure situations. We are creating a neurological highway to get her to that place. It's a very disciplined process. It's heavy lifting, and it's all done mentally. What Michelle has to do is create a story for herself in which she looks forward to the most pressure-packed situations. If you tell that story enough, eventually you begin to thrive in those situations."
In addition to the questionable decisions, Wie's other bugaboo last week was putting. On Thursday she made only one putt of longer than seven feet, and for the two rounds she had four three-putts. Leadbetter calls putting "the only weakness in her game" and says, "Technically, Michelle's stroke is very good, but she can sometimes struggle to find the proper speed and line. We are working to develop better feel."
When she practices, Wie putts with her eyes closed. Another drill has her striking 30-footers and, without looking at the results, saying where she thinks the balls have finished. Of course, there is a school of thought that great putters are born, not made. Wie's perfectionist tendencies seem to work against her on the greens, where her frustration can be seen in her body language. Here, too, Loehr is on the case. "She has to create a story in which she comes to love putting," he says. "The sacred earth of the putting green is the greatest opportunity to make the statement about who she is because it is her biggest challenge. It is the portal through which she will enter the most dramatic moments of her career. It is the place where she will establish her greatness. Her goal is simple: to become the greatest putter in history. Every missed putt has to be defined as one step closer to the ultimate goal."
To be sure, Wie has many kinds of goals. Over the weekend, while David Toms was grinding his way to his 12th career victory, Wie, a junior, was studying for an upcoming precalculus exam and writing a short story for her English class at Punahou School, all in hopes of maintaining her usual place on the honor roll. On Tuesday she was to take the road test in her quest to earn a driver's license, and she confessed to being more nervous about having to parallel park for an instructor than about playing golf in front of thousands of fans. Wie behind the wheel, speeding into the future, is the proper image to take away from this Sony Open, because there is still such a long way to go on her journey. Shooting a stop-and-go 79-68 only adds another layer of intrigue.
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the Feb. 6 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.