Her breakthrough LPGA win in Mexico vindicated Michelle Wie and placed a sagging tour squarely on her shoulders, but she's just as focused on passing her statistics class
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2009 issue
Stanford University is an open-door kind of place, and a sunny Thursday afternoon in one of the dorms provided views of students conspicuously avoiding schoolwork. In one room a dude thrashed on Guitar Hero. Across the hallway a coed gossiped on the phone while eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. A little farther down the hall five smart, sarcastic, giggly women were watching homemade music videos on a pink laptop and creating the menu for a barbecue they planned to host that evening.
"Can we serve pigburgers?"
"I believe it's referred to as pork."
"What if we make little menus and call it a swineburger?"
Here Michelle Wie spoke up: "Let's just name it the H1N1 Burger."
After the laughter subsided one of Wie's friends asked her, "What, no Spamburger?"
"I love Spam!" Wie said, sounding a little hurt. She wasn't joking—this was her room, and it was stocked with cans of the mystery meat, including, atop the fridge, the unholy coupling of Spam and macaroni and cheese, all in one tin can.
"She cooks Spam every morning," said Wie's roommate, Chiara Essig.
"Actually, she was making bacon yesterday, and you could smell it up and down the hall," said Tyler Mabry, an offensive lineman on the football team who had just wandered into the conversation.
Despite her culinary tastes, Wie's room is a popular gathering spot for a large, eclectic group of friends. The tiny two-bedroom unit boasts charming, do-it-yourself decor. The centerpiece is a homemade tiki bar held together with duct tape, its creation inspired by an instructional clip Wie saw on YouTube. The walls are adorned with artwork Wie has created using watercolors, spray paint, Sharpies and just about anything else she can get her hands on. Conspicuously absent is any evidence that Wie, 20, is a well-compensated professional golfer; in every way possible she comes across as a normal college kid, from her wardrobe (short-shorts, sweet old school sneakers painted gold) to her nail polish (black) to her vocabulary. (Legit and badass appear to be her favorite words.)
The barbecue plans complete—beef burgers wound up being served—Wie's friends began wandering off to their various commitments, which included class, hot yoga and practice (football, lacrosse). They parted with hugs and a singsong farewell of I love you/I love you, too. (The hulking Mabry only got the hug.) As Wie cruised across campus to the gym she bumped into a half-dozen other pals along the way, instantly falling into rapid-fire conversations about everything but golf.
"I kind of have two different lives," Wie said later, curled up on a chair in her deserted dorm room, munching on an apple and vigilantly monitoring the flurry of incoming calls, texts and e-mails on her iPhone. "I love golf, but it's not the only thing in my life."
Says one of Wie's closest Stanford friends, Casandra Espinoza, "To be honest, I completely forget she's a pro golfer. Then we'll be out to dinner in Palo Alto, and when people come up to ask for an autograph, it's always jarring. It's a reminder she has this global following, even though she's just Michelle to us."
Wie is in her third year at Stanford. She is a full-time student during the fall and winter quarters, from late September to mid-March; in the spring she takes a leave of absence to allow for more tournament golf. Wie is a sophomore academically but seems determined to catch up, as she is planning to take 20 units for the upcoming winter quarter toward her communications degree. Wie carries a 3.4 GPA, and there is zero doubt she will graduate within the next couple of years. "There are a lot of scholars in my family—it's very intimidating," she says, noting a Master's and two Ph.D.'s among her father and his siblings. "I'm definitely not going to be the only one in the family without a college degree. I also think it's an important message to send to kids, that you can be a dedicated athlete but also be serious about your education."
Wie the student and Wie the golfer came together as never before at last month's Lorena Ochoa Invitational, in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she shuttled between books and birdies to outdistance a stacked field and earn her first, long-awaited LPGA victory.
Tournament cameos during the fall and winter quarters can be complicated. In Mexico, Wie began and ended every day with a couple hours of studying. "Stressing about school keeps me from stressing about golf," she says with a laugh. Following a third-round 70 that tied her for the lead, Wie stayed up late crunching numbers for a statistics course. The next morning she slaved over a communications paper that she has given the working title, How Google Is Making Us Stupid. Then she went out and played the most important round of her life.
The narrative of Wie's pro career—which began four years ago, when she was a junior at Honolulu's Punahou School—had a main theme: an inability to win a tournament despite her extravagant talent, providing easy fodder for a large chorus of detractors. But 2009 was Wie's first season playing a full LPGA schedule, and it was a journey of self-discovery. Before leaving for Guadalajara, Wie acknowledged that she, too, was vexed by the victory drought. "I've been trying my best to figure it out, and I think what it comes down to is, I needed to believe in myself a little more," she said. "So now when I play, I'm putting myself out there more and really putting myself on the line. The stakes are higher for me, but I'm O.K. with that. I'm so focused on winning and to get that victory [that] I have to give it everything I have. There's no holding back anymore."
During the final round of the Ochoa Invitational she played a series of fearless shots to seize control of the tournament and then, with a handful of players lurking, Wie ground out five crucial pars in a row to take a one-stroke lead to the par-5 18th at Guadalajara Country Club. "I was just loving the competition and the pressure and really embracing it," she says. "I was having fun and just being myself." Lying 2 in a bunker 30 yards short of the 18th pin, Wie produced a defining shot, stopping her pitch inches from the hole to wrap up the victory, a play she accurately describes as "pretty damn awesome."
It was a deeply personal triumph, and Wie was particularly excited by all the congratulatory texts and Facebook messages from her Stanford friends, many of whom had gathered together in the dorms to watch the telecast of the final round. For a few it was the first time they had ever seen her swing a golf club. "I think they finally understand what it is I'm doing when I disappear from campus," Wie says.
Her idea of a big blowout celebration was to treat a handful of pals to a meal at a churrascaria in Palo Alto. Wie may have finished 14th on the LPGA money list with $918,659, but she's as frugal as any other college kid. Says Essig, "We've been wanting to eat at this Brazilian restaurant for a long time, but it's kinda pricey so we decided we needed to wait for a special occasion."
As much as the triumph meant to Wie (and her friends), it has even more profound implications for the LPGA. Three days after the victory, at the season-ending Tour Championship, the tour announced that its 2010 schedule will have only 24 events, down from 34 in '08, a sign of how much corporate support this niche sport has lost during the economic downturn. Wie has long been viewed as a potential savior for the tour, and in the wake of her victory, 23-year veteran Meg Mallon explicitly linked Wie with Nancy Lopez, the crossover icon who more or less invented the modern LPGA. Says Mallon, "Michelle reminds me of Nancy in the way you can't take your eyes off of her. She just has that star quality, that ability to draw in even casual sports fans."
It was possible to quantify the Wie effect at the Tour Championship's pro-am party. At the event, the LPGA held an auction, during which well-heeled amateurs bid on spots in the pecking order for drafting pro partners. A couple of good ol' boys got into a bidding war for the first pick. "Everyone in the room knew they wanted Michelle," says third-year pro Kristy McPherson. "When the bidding got up to $22,000, I thought a couple of the LPGA officials might faint." (Pro-ams are an important revenue stream as the LPGA tries to stay afloat.) Wie's colleagues have not tried to hide their excitement over her breakthrough. "It was a great victory for the fans, for the sponsors, for the whole tour," says McPherson. "Trust me, we know how important it was."
At the Tour Championship, Wie tacitly embraced her new burden just by showing up. Wie calls herself "the klutziest person on the planet" and claims to have once counted 33 bruises on her body. So it was no surprise when she stepped in a hole and sprained her ankle at the Solheim Cup in late August. She aggravated the injury by stepping in another hole five weeks later—"I told you I'm a klutz," she says with a laugh—but Wie was playing so well that she continued to tee it up. Along the way she earned high marks for her grit: On Twitter, LPGA player Paige MacKenzie hailed Wie's limp as "gangsta swagger."
The nagging pain in the ankle was a familiar feeling for Wie, whose performance suffered dramatically throughout 2007 and '08 as she stubbornly tried to play through a series of wrist injuries. After her victory, Wie would have loved to take some time off to rest her ankle, but she knew it would've been a monumental buzz kill to skip the Tour Championship, so she showed up for all the press conferences and parties and even hobbled through a first-round 72 during which her ankle buckled mid-swing on the final two holes. She withdrew from the tournament that evening, and an ensuing MRI revealed tendinitis but no significant damage.
That Wie listened to her body was the latest sign of maturation in a year defined by tremendous growth on and off the course. In previous seasons, when she dabbled on different tours and continents, and turned up for only a handful of LPGA events, Wie was an outsider wherever she played, resented for her hype or endorsement portfolio or gender. But playing a full slate of tournaments alongside other like-minded young women has given Wie an overdue stability and allowed her to develop several close friendships on tour, a process aided by all the bonding at the Solheim Cup (where she further ingratiated herself to teammates by going 3-0-1 to lead the U.S. to victory). Wie's longtime mentor, 26-year-old Natalie Gulbis, says, "So many players have come up to me this year and said, 'Wow, Michelle is a really cool, really sweet, really down-to-earth girl.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I know, I've been telling you that for years.' It's been so nice to see her get comfortable enough to let people into her world and let them get to know her."
In the wake of the Solheim Cup it was often noted that Wie had blossomed while being sequestered from her father, B.J., and her mother, Bo, who travel to all of her tournaments but, like the other parents at the Solheim, weren't allowed in the team room. B.J. and Bo have taken a more hands-off role in their daughter's career since Michelle signed with IMG last March. They declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they wanted the focus to be on Michelle, and they showed even more restraint after she tapped in for victory in Guadalajara, standing at the edge of the 18th green out of camera range and letting Michelle soak in the moment (and a joyous beer shower, courtesy of Solheim teammates Brittany Lincicome and Morgan Pressel, the latter a onetime detractor). B.J. and Bo live 20 minutes from the Stanford campus, but Michelle says, "I never see my parents. They don't even bother calling me anymore." She stops to reconsider. "I will go over to their house once in a while to do laundry."
Michelle's independence can be measured in boyfriends (she's had a few serious ones at Stanford, though she's presently unattached) and blog posts, as this fall she surprised her folks (and IMG handlers) by creating a charmingly low-key diary of her artwork and clever homemade fashion creations at ablackflamingo.blogspot.com.
Wie may seem much more comfortable in her own skin, but it wasn't easy spending her teen years as golf's most scrutinized sideshow. "I've been through a lot in my life," she says. "There have been a lot of tough learning experiences. I wouldn't really recommend anyone else go through the same things, but it's made me so much stronger."
This hard-won perspective will help Wie next year when the eyes of the sports world once again will be upon her. True to her free-spirited nature, she is not getting too caught up in the cresting expectations. "I try to be pretty chill, living day to day," she says. But, Wie allows, "I do have my goals." Such as? "Rack up Solheim Cup points. Win tournaments. Win majors. Pass my classes." Here she lets out an infectious giggle. Anything else?
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