Barely a teen when she was teeing it up against the guys on the PGA Tour a decade ago, MICHELLE WIE is happy at last, a college grad who's the face of the burgeoning LPGA, and, oh, at 24, the newly minted U.S. Women's Open champion
This is an article from the June 30, 2014 issue
ONE OF THE best parties of the year on the LPGA circuit took place a few weeks ago at Harrah's in Atlantic City. The event was ostensibly to celebrate the pro-am participants at the ShopRite Classic, but it doubled as an exhibition of the youth, glamour and star power that is propelling the LPGA into a new golden age. Lexi Thompson lit up the room with her dazzling smile, but watching her mug for goofy photos was a reminder that the winner of this year's first major championship is still a fun-loving 19-year-old. Floating around the party was Sandra Gal, 29, the German Solheim Cupper who speaks three languages, paints, plays the violin and moonlights as a fashion model. Also making the scene was Morgan Pressel, 26, who won her first major seven years ago and has since raised more than $3.4 million for cancer research. Conspicuous by her absence was Lydia Ko, who at 17 is the purest talent to burst onto the LPGA scene since Nancy Lopez 37 years ago. In keeping with her low-key sensibilities, Ko skipped the revelry to volunteer at a food bank. If you have a young daughter, the LPGA tour is one-stop shopping for positive role models.
A few hours into the party the energy changed. Flashes from iPhones began popping, and the volume of chatter rose. Michelle Wie had arrived. There are more accomplished players on the LPGA tour, but she remains the only one with the incandescent glow of celebrity. It's always been that way, but at long last Wie, 24, has the game to back up her fame. On Sunday, in the Sandhills of North Carolina, she fulfilled all that promise with a victory at the U.S. Women's Open, her second of the season to go along with a runner-up finish to Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco.
Wie leads the tour money list and was clearly first in the hearts of the middle-aged guests at Harrah's. Even in flats, the 6'1" Wie towered over most of them. One fellow, his cheeks reddened from an afternoon battling the elements on the golf course—or maybe it was the bourbon from the open bar—blurted out, "You're even prettier in person." Wie offered a wan smile, not knowing how to respond. Mini-tour player Molly Aronsson was fanning herself after a brief encounter with Wie. "I was so overwhelmed I couldn't speak," Aronsson said.
It's hard to say what gives a person star quality—after all, there are plenty of good-looking actors but only one Robert Redford. "Whatever it is, Michelle has it," says Meg Mallon, Wie's mentor and a two-time U.S. Women's Open champ. "People are drawn in by her, they can't take their eyes off her. Every sport needs a person like that, and Michelle is it for women's golf."
The ratings for the Kraft were up 124% from last year, and it's no surprise the Open got an 89% overnight bounce because the final round was Wie's entire career in microcosm: moments of high drama and low comedy punctuated by her freakish talent and dogged determination. Wie's victory has sweeping ramifications for the resurgent LPGA, but it was also a deeply personal triumph. Long after the round at Pinehurst No. 2, she was still overwhelmed by the magnitude of the achievement. "I can't even think straight I'm so happy right now," she said. "I'm so honored to have my name on the trophy, just so grateful for everything. I'm feeling every single emotion I can right now."
WIE IS the same age Annika Sorenstam was when she made the Open the first of her 10 major championships. It is particularly poignant for Wie to be welcomed into the game's most exclusive club because until recently her golfing life had been defined by a sense of otherness. She didn't compete for her high school team or play many junior events, her prodigious talent (and ambitious parents) pushing her into nontraditional competitive situations: a girl playing against men at qualifying for the 2003 U.S. Open and a handful of Sony Opens, then as an undergrad challenging hardened LPGA pros.
It was at Stanford that Wie finally found her place. "College was such a special time," she says. "It was a chance for me to grow up and figure out who I am. That's what college is for most people, I guess, but it was especially important for me because I didn't have the most normal childhood." That last line, delivered with a knowing chuckle, is about as deep as Wie is willing to delve into the trauma of her wild ride as a youngster. She won her first two tournaments while attaining a communications degree with a 3.4 GPA, one of the more underrated feats in recent student-athlete history.
Wie graduated in the spring of 2012 and became, for the first time, a full-time touring professional. But for a year and a half it looked as if she was just punching the clock. It was Mallon, as the Solheim Cup captain, who altered the trajectory of Wie's career by choosing her for the U.S. team in August 2013, even though to that point in the season she had missed seven cuts in 19 starts and finished no better than ninth.
"I'll never forget Michelle's reaction when she found out she had been picked," says Jessica Korda, one of her closest friends on tour. "She was crying so hard her contact lens popped out. People who think she doesn't care have no clue. She just needed a little spark to reignite that passion."
Wie finished 2--2 and was one of the few Americans to show any fire during a lopsided loss to Europe. What she treasures most about the Solheim week are the deep friendships she forged. "I felt more free to be myself," she says. Two years earlier Wie had established a home base in Jupiter, Fla., the center of the golf universe, but it wasn't until after the Solheim that she finally had friends to invite over for dinner parties and money games to play with the many LPGA regulars in the area, including Solheim teammates Korda and world No. 1 Stacy Lewis. Her new compatriots have been delighted to discover that Wie is a quirky, eclectic character full of surprises.
"She's kind of a klutz," says Lewis. "For someone with such a graceful swing, put her in the gym, and it's a comedy show."
"A lot of people don't understand what a dork she is," says Tiffany Joh. "She's awkward, and that's part of her charm."
"She eats so much it's a joke," says Korda.
Indeed, you can get high cholesterol just following Wie on Instagram. She's such a carnivore that her swing instructor, David Leadbetter, gave her an alignment stick emblazoned with the image of a rack of ribs. A regular member of Wie's dinner posse, Joh says the goal of the group is "to eat until we have regrets. If there was a world ranking for eating, Michelle would definitely be in the top five."
Wie has also become well known on tour for her artsy side, whether that means painting her fingernails to look like Starry Night or dying her hair in Technicolor swirls. On the second story of her townhouse at the Bear's Club—a swank private club of which Jack Nicklaus is the patriarch—she has a dedicated art studio. "I love to play my music and drink a glass of wine and do my paintings," she says. "It's my form of escape." She is partial to large, abstract works. The paintings she has posted on Instagram are so arresting that she has been approached about mounting a gallery exhibit, but she's hesitant to do that. "I just paint for myself," she says.
There's no canvas more vast than a golf course, and Wie's resurgence can be traced to her decision to express herself more creatively. She has been working with the technically minded Leadbetter since she was 13, using video as a core teaching tool. Last October, in the days before an event in Malaysia, Wie informed her coach she would rely entirely on feel.
"Hallelujah!" says Mallon. "My contention has always been that David is a mechanic and Michelle an artist." Wie finished 12th in Malaysia and tied for third the next week in Korea, her best showing in more than two years. She is fiercely loyal to Leadbetter but does allow, "For a long time I was chasing technical perfection, where every swing had to be exactly the same. It was a stressful way to play. Now I just hit shots. It's allowed me to play with more freedom."
Wie's trust in herself was put to the ultimate test on Open Sunday. Tied for the lead at the start of the day, she seized control with a driver/8-iron eagle on the 452-yard par-5 10th, the kind of smashmouth golf that explains her long-standing appeal. (Dudes dig the long ball.) Playing the par-4 16th hole Wie led by three over Lewis, who had roared home with a four-under 66. But from a fairway bunker Wie made the "dummy" decision to go for the green with a hybrid, and her errant shot disappeared into a wirebrush, setting off a madcap search for the missing ball. Her caddie, Duncan French, finally found it, but Wie was forced to take a penalty for an unplayable lie. With the Open slipping away, she calmly played a conservative shot to a dangerous pin. "You know, I think that I felt a twinge of panic," Wie said, with typical candor. "But the thing I was most proud of is that I didn't let it get away from me. For sure, you can go down the road of, Oh, my God, I'm going to make a triple, I'm going to make a quadruple, I'm going to lose the U.S. Open. I just shut that off."
With church bells ringing, she charged her first putt past the hole, leaving a 5-footer for double bogey to preserve a one-shot lead. Wie poured the putt in and then did the most wondrous thing—she laughed. "That's a situation where if you take yourself too seriously, bad things will happen and I just kind of went with the flow."
"That laugh was my favorite moment of the round," says Mallon. "It said so much about her poise."
Wie stepped to the par-3 17th and smoothed an 8-iron to 20 feet, then holed the defining putt, punctuating the birdie with the lustiest fist pumps of her career. A textbook par on the 18th hole earned her a champagne shower from Korda and others and a place in the pantheon.
THE QUESTION now facing Wie is the same one she first dealt with as a tween: What's next? Leadbetter believes this is just the beginning of a sustained run by his prized pupil. "The floodgates can open now," he says. "Anything is possible."
The Open was a monument to the maturation of one of the most complete games in golf. Wie came into Pinehurst second on tour in greens in regulation, and the crafty way she navigated that demanding track only burnished her rep as the most imaginative shotmaker in the women's game. The stinger 3-woods she favored down the stretch on Sunday already have a cult following on the tour. "Every time she hits one of those I just laugh," says Lewis, "because no one out here has that shot."
Adds Joh, "She hits it left to right, right to left, high, low—she can do whatever she wants with the golf ball. And ohmygoodness, the sound of her strike. Sometimes if she's hitting behind me on the range, I get scared for a second, like when a car backfires in Compton and everybody hits the deck."
Wie's putting was always streaky at best, and her endless tinkering led her last year to an idiosyncratic address position in which she does her best imitation of a coffee table, her long frame bent in half, with her back nearly parallel to the ground. It looks funny, but it works; Wie is fifth on tour in putts per green in regulation; and she had 25 one-putts and didn't three-putt on No. 2's treacherous greens. (Even Martin Kaymer can't say that.) Still, no stance induces so much snark. Wie has always shown a remarkable grace in dealing with her legion of detractors, and she recently offered on Twitter a cheeky rebuttal, posting an old photo of Nicklaus in similar address position. "If it's good enough for Jack, it's good enough for me," Wie says.
She has become one of the LPGA's best chippers by gleaning tips while practicing alongside fellow Bear's Club members Ernie Els and Luke Donald, and that wedge game was a difference-maker at Pinehurst. Wie enjoyed the advantage of her pals Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley having loaned her their yardage books from their own Open at No. 2. She has played a handful of matches against Bradley, who says, "She's like one of the guys." Wie no longer harbors ambitions to compete on the PGA Tour, but she does enjoy taking on the fellas in casual games. Ask Tour sophomore Morgan Hoffmann. He recently lost all the skins on the back nine to Wie, who was playing from the 7,143-yard tips.
Deemphasizing time on the range in favor of playing more often has left her feeling "more game-ready," but it comes with another benefit: "It gets her away from her parents," says Lewis.
B.J. and his wife, Bo, have a habit of tagging along whenever their only child heads to the range, just one of the reason theirs is golf's most discussed modern family.
In all of Michelle's years of competition, her parents have been present for every tournament save one—B.J. filling notebooks with his personal stats and Bo startling onlookers with her shrill cheers. In the popular view the Wies are overbearing parents who have always suffocated their daughter, but the family dynamics are more nuanced than that. Michelle's parents live in her house at her insistence. "It was a big move," she says, "and I didn't want to do it alone." In her champion's press conference she paid them a heartfelt tribute: "When I had my downs, when people doubted me, my parents would never let me doubt myself. If I even showed an ounce of doubt, they just believed in me so hard that I started to believe in myself again. They're my No. 1 fans. They're my two eyes. They see everything."
This was evident on the practice green at the ShopRite, where Wie did a cool drill in which she placed two tees on the edge of the cup just a few inches apart. To get her four-footers to the bottom of the hole, she had to roll her ball dead center between the tees. B.J. stood a couple of feet away cooing encouragement, while Bo was on the edge of the green stroking Michelle's dog, Lola. The four of them always travel in a pack. The next day, as Michelle finished her pro-am round a little after noon, B.J. was taking long pulls on a bottle of Stella. "I've already had two vodka shots," he said. "Michelle made me do it." It turns out that at the 2009 Lorena Ochoa Invitational, Michelle talked B.J. into taking a shot of tequila during the pro-am. When Michelle won her first LPGA tournament that week, a tradition was born. "I love hazing my dad," she says with a devilish laugh. She adds that she expects her parents to move back to Hawaii within a year. This comes as news to B.J. "Oh, no, really?"
Kicking her parents out of the nest would be another sign of growth for Wie. In the cliquish South Florida golf community she has earned a reputation as the life of the party, and she had so much fun at a New Year's Eve bash at Fowler's house that Hoffmann says, "we still kid her about it." Wie's post-Pinehurst blowout should only enhance her legend; she reported to Mallon that it takes 21½ beers to fill the trophy, and footage of her doing some naughty dance moves burned up the Internet. Wie has been spotted around town with 24-year-old U.S. pro Brooks Koepka, who a week earlier finished fourth at Pinehurst, but she says of her love life, "It's kind of nonexistent—I've been traveling too much. That's all you're gonna get out of me on that topic."
Wie has learned to guard her privacy, but she's increasingly comfortable as the public face of the LPGA. Her colleagues know what her Open victory means to the tour. "She's a game-changer," says 13-year veteran Natalie Gulbis. Yet on Sunday night Wie and those close to her didn't want to look back or ahead so much as savor a long-awaited breakthrough. "It's been an incredibly emotional journey," says Leadbetter. "It certainly means more for her to have won one now than if she had done it at 14 or 15."
Leadbetter concedes that Wie will never hit the ball as far as she did when was in her early teens. "She was this skinny, wiry whippet, and the way she could bend her body, she developed so much torque in her swing it was crazy," he says. "She swings a different way now because she's a fully grown woman." The evolution of Wie's action left Leadbetter musing about the nature of rebirth: "You can't say she's back because this is not the old Michelle. This is an entirely new one."
This version is older, wiser, happier, more independent and more well-rounded, though hardly conventional. "I like doing things my own way," says the U.S. Women's Open champion. "I like being different. I like being weird. I've just become a lot more comfortable with who I am and what I am. I know I'm going to have downs, and I'm going to have ups. At this point I'm ready for whatever life is going to throw at me."