The Power of Michelle
story by Grady Timmons
photos by Ann Cecil
The days leading up to the PGA Tour?s Sony Open, held this past January at the Waialae Country Club, were heady times for Honolulu?s Michelle Wie. The young golfing phenom was a featured guest on Hawaii?s top morning radio and television programs, as well as the focus of a front-page story in the sports section of the Honolulu Advertiser, which named her the state?s number one golf story for 2001.
Invited by Sony organizers to play in a special pro-junior competition before the main tournament, Wie wowed the six PGA Tour stars who participated, not to mention the several thousand spectators who followed along. Even ESPN took notice, featuring her in a clip that was beamed around the world during Sunday?s final round.
Why all the fuss? For starters, Wie is among the most promising young female golfers on the planet. At the tender age of twelve, she already stands five feet, ten inches tall, wears a man?s size 9 1/2 shoe and routinely powers drives of 275 yards. At the Olomana Golf Links, her home course in windward Oahu, she has scored as low as 64.
After watching her at the Sony Open, ESPN golf analyst and former British Open champion Ian Baker Finch described her swing as ?perfect.? Tom Lehman, the 1996 PGA Tour Player of the Year and Wie?s playing partner during the Sony pro-junior competition, said afterward, ?Her poise is unbelievable. Either you have it or don?t, and this girl has got it.? And Tour veteran Tim Herron, who played with Wie in the Sony pro-am the following day, told ESPN, ?She drove the ball almost as far as I did. She can bomb it. She?s going to be a world-beater on the LPGA Tour.?
Rave reviews are pretty much par for the course for Wie, who candidly admits that she aspires to become the female counterpart to Tiger Woods, her golfing hero, as well as the first female to make it on the men?s PGA Tour. And while those might seem like overly ambitious goals, astute observers of the game don?t doubt that she has the potential.
Indeed, the young golfer has been turning heads since the summer of 2000, when, at the age of ten, she became the youngest player to ever qualify for the USGA National Women?s Public Links Championship. Last year, at the age of eleven, she captured both the Hawaii State Women?s Stroke Play Championship and the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, the oldest and most prestigious women?s amateur tournament in the Islands. In the latter event, Wie hardly broke a sweat, winning by a whopping nine shots.
And Wie wasn?t the only young female golfer beating up on local adults last year. In June, Wie?s seventh-grade classmate at Punahou School, Stephanie Kono, captured the State Women?s Match Play Championship, scoring an ace in her final match at the Oahu Country Club.
Kono is also an exceptional talent, and both girls have created quite a stir in Honolulu. But it has been Wie, with her man-size power and gender-barrier-breaking potential, who has made the biggest splash nationally. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has called about a possible future appearance, and she has received write-ups in Sports Illustrated (as did Kono), Golfweek, Golf Journal and ESPN Magazine.
Wie seems to be redefining and extending the limits of what?s possible in women?s golf. However, as a young phenom in a remote island state, she faces a dilemma: To continue to grow and improve, she has to be fed a diet of increasingly stiffer competition. When you are twelve years old and have already thrashed the best women golfers Hawaii has to offer, where do you go for that competition?
Locally, Wie has been attacking that problem by competing against the men. Last summer, she created a media frenzy when she became the youngest golfer, and the first female, to qualify for the 94-year-old Ma¯noa Cup, the men?s State Amateur Match Play Championship. In the first round, she went up against Doug Williams, a forty-three-year-old California businessman, who had to shoot under-par golf to defeat her.
Wie?s other strategy to gain competitive experience continues to be frequent trips to the Mainland. Last spring, she traveled to Phoenix to try and qualify for the U.S. Women?s Open. Although she failed in her attempt, she scored a very respectable 76 and consistently out-drove her two LPGA Tour playing partners.
A few months later, she again qualified for the U.S. Women?s Public Links Championship, this time defeating Curtis Cup player Hillary Homeyer of Stanford in the second round, before being edged by twenty-year-old Allison Johnson of Amarillo, Texas.
Afterward, Johnson said what almost every older golfer, whether man or woman, has said after facing Wie: ?I just kept telling myself, ?I can?t get beaten by an eleven-year-old.? She?s awesome. I was in shock. She hits it so far.?
Wie is the daughter of Byung Wook (B. J.) and Hyun Kyong (Bo) Wie, who immigrated to Hawaii from Korea. B.J., a professor at the University of Hawaii, and Bo, a former low-handicap golfer, are justifiably proud of their daughter, although they are somewhat at a loss to explain her unusual gifts.
The pair exposed Michelle to a variety of activities during her early years, including baseball, tennis, swimming and the piano, but it was golf that she gravitated toward. In fact, says B.J., he and his wife knew they had a prodigious talent on their hands the first time Michelle swung a club at the age of four and a half. ?We were at a neighborhood park and I had my video camera out,? he says. ?I teed the ball up and she hit it a good hundred yards.? Thus, a child prodigy was born.
Michelle is as mature off the golf course as she is on it. She has already chosen Stanford as the place where she wants to go to college; she is invested in and follows the stock market; and her best subject in school is math. She is also a voracious reader?a self-taught speed-reader, in fact.
But after school and on weekends you can usually find her at the Olomana Golf Links, where she is under the guidance of pro Casey Nakama. She practices three to four hours a day during the week, and seven to eight hours a day on the weekend.
Not surprisingly, such dedication at such a young age has many observers worried that Wie will eventually burn out. Michelle herself, however, dismisses such speculation. ?I?m never going to get tired of golf,? she says.
Another worry is that all the attention and expectations that come with being a child prodigy will overburden Wie. But she says she likes the attention. Certainly, that seemed to be the case at the Sony Open. After playing with Tom Lehman in the pro-junior competition, she happily posed for photographs, gave interviews and signed autographs for parents and their youngsters.
Her mother, Bo, says that Michelle?s celebrity is such that people frequently approach her for autographs in restaurants and shopping malls. ?They know who she is,? she says.
Indeed they do. And the rest of the world may not be far behind.