AROUND THE GREENS
Guiding career of phenom not easy
By Bill Kwon
|Michelle Wie, then 11, was shielded from the rain by her father, B.J., during the 2001 Manoa Cup.
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Golf World cover girl and a front-page profile subject by USA Today, Wie is on the cover of ESPN Magazine's fifth annual special with three other heralded female athletes who got game tennis grand slam champion Serena Williams, UConn basketball standout Diana Taurasi and Tiffeny Milbrett, a member of the national women's soccer team.
When Wie finished the third round in the State Amateur at the Pearl Country Club, members of the University of Southern California women's golf team practicing there went up to her to say hello. At the Sony Open in January, PGA touring pros were watching her hit balls at the practice range.
This is head-turning stuff. So much success, so fast.
Especially for someone who just became a teenager and is still too young to play for her high school golf team.
Not surprisingly, there are criticisms:
- LPGA players gripe that she's depriving them of income.
- Her parents are pushing her too hard.
- She's taking too much time away from school.
- She'll burn out.
- Wait until she discovers boys.
"She's the best 13-year-old I've ever seen, male or female," said Mark Rolfing in his TV Show, Golf Hawai'i. "(But) she needs a nice, slow, logical path to her goal."
B.J. Wie, Michelle's father, has heard it all.
"I have some concerns as well and I take it (criticism) as positive advice," he said.
Career at high speed
He admits that Michelle's career might be hurtling along too fast. "But this is an exceptional year. Next year when she enters high school, it should slow down."
For one thing, he says, there will be fewer men's tournaments because she will be finally playing for the Punahou girls golf team. Yes, the girls team, playing from the women's tees.
"It should help her short game and hopefully she can reach the (par-4) greens in one," Wie said about his nearly 6-foot daughter whose tee shots average 280 yards.
The reason his daughter is playing in a lot of men's events is because there are no women's tournaments early in the year, Wie said. The first this year will be the Jennie K. Invitational in May, and Michelle will be playing in the event that she won as an 11-year-old two years ago.
He might as well add that there's a lack of female competition locally. In last year's Hawai'i State Open, she blew away the women's field, winning by 13 strokes. So Michelle tried to qualify for the PGA's Sony Open, finishing 47th, beating out nearly 50 men, including senior tour golfer Dave Eichelberger.
"She dusted me by four strokes," Eichelberger said.
Michelle also made the cut in the Hawai'i Pearl Open last month.
Masters ultimate goal
The ultimate reason for competing against men is that she wants to play in the Masters some day. "That's her ultimate goal," her father said.
You listening, Hootie?
That's why she will be trying to qualify for the U.S. Men's Amateur as well as the U.S. Women's Amateur this summer. She has qualified for the National Women's Public Links Championships after reaching the semifinals last year and may try for the men's publinx if the scheduling works out.
Playing in men's events is one thing, Rolfing says, but Michelle needs the experience of winning tournaments, at whatever level it may be.
Dealing with failure at age 13 isn't good, Rolfing said.
Her father agrees.
"That's the same thing her swing coach (Greg Gilchrist of the David Ledbetter School in Florida) tells her," he said.
As for accepting sponsors' exemptions to LPGA events, B.J. Wie said:
"When you get an invitation, it's hard to turn down. They're not readily given. And everybody wants her."
Still, B.J. points out that in only two of the LPGA tournaments will she miss any classes. The rest are during the summer and next week's Kraft Nabisco Championship will be during spring break.
And any complaints from LPGA pros are usually from the lower-tiered players, according to B.J. A lot of the top players know that with Michelle entered, there will be more publicity for their tour, he said.
Tough, pricey schedule
It's a demanding schedule, the father admits, and a costly one, in terms of travel expenses. But B.J. is managing well, considering he's a professor in the school of travel management at the University of Hawai'i.
Wie estimates he'll spend about $50,000 this year on his daughter.
"It's an investment for her college future. A scholarship at Stanford costs about $50,000 a year," he said of the university Michelle wants to attend when she graduates from Punahou School.
"If she gets a scholarship, I count that as a good investment."
Stanford's very much on Michelle's mind because her uncle, Bong Wie, now on the Arizona State faculty, got his doctorate there. Also, her grandfather, Sang Kyu Wie, was a visiting professor at Stanford before retiring from Seoul National University.
With her family background, Michelle knows the value of education, B.J. said. And surely, in terms of a return investment, Stanford must know what Michelle could do for its women's golf program.
Bill Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.