ISLE PROFILE: THE WIES
Teenage prodigy's golf career is a family endeavor
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
|BJ, Michelle and Bo Wie spent quite a summer together, travelling 20,000 miles for golf tournaments.
Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser
At the heart of every decision is something much more meaningful than the length of Michelle's drives and breadth of her spectacular skills.
"What I like is that she's 13," Scott Hendrix, an Idaho schoolteacher, said in September after taking his class to see Wie play in the Nationwide Tour Albertsons Boise Open. "And she really wants to be 13."
That is what BJ and Bo Wie want to hear. It means more than the hype and astonishment, and swiftly silences the criticisms that have come their way.
They know better than anyone that their now-14 year old, 6-foot-something wunderkind has "the gift." They have known longer than anyone. Their mission in life has become to nurture that gift and help Michelle continue to believe her future is limitless.
And one other thing. It is imperative to the Wies that they allow Michelle to be 13 or 14, or whatever she is on this day in her incredible journey, without golf grabbing away her childhood.
BJ and Bo are walking a tightrope few have even taken off the ground. Tiger Woods' parents might be the closest comparison, and they took a completely different direction.
BJ and Bo are a huge part of this huge Hawai'i golf story, particularly BJ, who is the first and last Wie face you see at every stop.
"You can't expect a 14-year-old girl to handle the media and peripheral stuff that comes with being a prodigy," says Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson. "That responsibility/protection comes from the parents, and BJ naturally is going to be in the spotlight as somewhat the mouthpiece of the family.
"All in all, I think he's handled it well. Some areas could be better, but not many other parents have been in that situation. And no one will mistake him for a tennis dad."
BJ, a University of Hawai'i transportation professor, and Bo, a Ho-nolulu Realtor, met in Korea and married in Los Angeles. Their lives revolve around their only child. Seemingly all their conversations involve Michelle and/or include her.
Bo is in charge of apparel and nutrition. BJ deals with the media and tournament directors. Both schedule travel and shoulder the golf bag. Bo caddies during practice rounds so BJ and Michelle can map the course. He takes over during tournaments, to save money and give his daughter a punching bag.
"The reason I went back to caddying is there are only a few more years I can be her caddy," says BJ, who "fired himself" after the etiquette blowout at the U.S. Women's Open, only to re-hire himself later in the summer. "Once she goes to college or turns professional, she will be with a professional caddy, so I'll have to look at her from a distance.
"And she doesn't want to work with another caddy for awhile. It's her choice. We ask her. She doesn't want us to hire a caddy. She feels she needs a buffer zone. When she is very frustrated, she can blame me. She cannot take it out on a professional caddy. She can punch and kick me. Golf is so hard when you don't play well. You need something to blame."
For now, BJ is that "buffer zone" for his daughter. She playfully punches and pushes him down the fairway. They argue over shots and clubs, and usually end up laughing. They finish a round and he puts away the clubs and joins her to greet the masses.
"I think their relationship is great," says Parker McLachlin, whose brother Spencer is Wie's classmate, and who joined Wie in her Nationwide Tour men's event the week he turned pro. "He's good for her. They have fun together."
BJ took this school year off to be with Michelle and, outside of her time as a Punahou freshman, the family is rarely apart. After their 20,000-mile summer golf odyssey ended this summer, they came home happy and fatigued. After a week, they were ready to go again.
"We always talk about whether it is too much for us or not," BJ says. "Summer was not too much for us. We had enough break. When we got back, we started missing it. We didn't want to clean house. When we were on the road we went out to eat, we didn't have to cook. And Michelle, she liked it because there was no homework."
"I loved it," Michelle agreed. "I like school too, but I loved those three months I had with my parents and coach every day on the golf course, just having fun."
The right environment
The plan now is to follow a similar itinerary next year. With both parents working, a college scholarship all but assured, equipment provided and grants available for amateur events, the Wies feel they can finance Michelle's near-future.
They have no interest in her going away anytime soon. If they did, Michelle would already be in Bradenton, Fla., working with famed coach Gary Gilchrist at the David Leadbetter Academy.
The Wies rejected that plan with Gilchrist's blessing and came up with the current compromise.
"The reason why this relationship has worked is that when I first met them, I could tell Michelle loves school in Hawai'i," says Gilchrist, a laid-back South African who jokes with Michelle much like her father. "She has great friends in Hawai'i, and her mom and dad had done a great job with her game. I could tell there was a great balance.
"Golf is only a part of your life. The kids that are successful are like that. They are very well-rounded, have balanced expectations, know how to take things one day at a time. They do their best and don't beat themselves up as much as some others do."
Gilchrist believes this schedule puts Michelle in "the right environment to learn and gain experience." He also says it will be two or three years before he can gauge its effectiveness because the level of golf is so high and the game so quirky.
He does not measure Wie's improvement by score or place. Instead, it is what she does better today than yesterday or the last tournament or the last year. Day 2 at the Nationwide Tour's Boise Open was better than Day 1. Shooting 66 at an LPGA major was as outrageous as the 85 at (last week's) LPGA event in South Korea. That is just golf.
The Wies say their most crucial decisions now involve which tournaments to play "It's hard turning down high-level invitations," BJ says, adding that he has already declined a PGA Tour invitation and how best to keep Michelle's grade point average up, and prepare her to take the SAT.
Her future will include a "combination of major amateur tournaments and professional tournaments" but it might not look precisely like this year.
The LPGA is contemplating limiting the number of sponsor exemptions from six to four annually. Also, the Wies are hopeful Michelle will be chosen as one of the eight female amateurs to represent the United States at the international Curtis Cup.
That would affect her summer schedule, and delay her dream of trying to qualify for the Masters (by winning the U.S. Public Links). BJ says the only guarantee next year is that Wie will return to the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she finished ninth last year on her spring break. The family also is hoping to receive a sponsor's exemption into the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Hawai'i.
"It's still being discussed," says Sony representative Dale Nagata. "It will be decided soon. We have to decide soon."
If you watch Michelle closely, you see a mature woman in the making. She has an athletically ideal 6-foot frame, and a "Big Wiesy" swing similar to the laconic and ludicrously rich Ernie Els, the No. 3 golfer in the world.
Wie's whole ambience is startlingly sophisticated for someone so young. She can be charmingly spontaneous, cute without being coy, and effortlessly funny. She sounds like a child until you analyze her words, which are often intuitive.
When the mess with Danielle Ammaccapane broke at the U.S. Women's Open, Wie's reaction to Ammaccapane's charges of poor etiquette by Michelle and her father was seemingly innocuous yet extremely pointed: "I was really surprised, because I guess I've always played with really nice people."
Clearly Ammaccapane had a good point, she just went about proving it awkwardly. BJ says now he "fully supports" what Ammaccapane was trying to do.
"It was a good learning process," he admits. "We've got to respect what they're doing is not for fun. They are making money to support their family. Michelle is playing to gain experience.
"It happened early, so we're not going to have any similar incidents in the future. If that happens again, something is wrong."
His daughter is as precocious with a microphone in her hand as she is with a driver. She can light up a press room with laughter and a unique blend of child-like innocence and sage wisdom. With her "age mulligan," she can say things no other golfer of note could get away with.
"We don't say anything to her," BJ says. "Naturally, she has a good sense of humor. She's also a kid. Even though she might say some controversial things, people know she's only 14 years old. Also, she's very politically correct. She's very conscious about not making negative comments."
Wie has attracted avid interest and thrived partly because she enjoys people in her business for now. She invites them in. It is her parents who have to send them away before they overstay their welcome.
BJ and Bo shield her, but insist they don't coach her. What comes out of that unpredictable mouth is all Michelle.
"She is so fun-loving," says LPGA rookie Christina Kim, another prodigy. "She's 14 and she doesn't look like it at first and doesn't really act like it, to be honest. Maybe you're asking the wrong person about her I'm 19 going on 12 myself but we get along great.
"She's funny and very, very intelligent. She's opened herself up a lot since I met her at Nabisco. She's more willing to look people in the eye and directly approach people. She has command of her golf game and overall personal well-being. She's an awesome person. Not a little girl, just an awesome person."
There will always be some who disagree, not so much with Michelle but with all that surrounds her.
Ferguson notes that there is now a bullseye on Wie's back at amateur events, with elite juniors taking particular aim because she has all but ignored junior events and bolted straight to national championships and professional tournaments.
Along with encouragement, there are signs of resentment on the LPGA tour, where Wie missed just one cut this year and finished in the top 10 at a major.
After Wie missed the cut at two men's events, national golf magazines chipped in on the Wie's world with dramatically different views.
Golf World's perspective piece was entitled "The Big Queasy." The last paragraph read "Over-exposed with a license to impose, Michelle has proven she's more than a Wie bit out of her element."
Golfweek's commentary was called "Let Michelle Wie be." On the top were three head shots. The first highlighted the red, blue and green streaks Wie put in her hair with the encouragement of LPGA veteran Meg Mallon. In the second, Wie wore her cap crooked. In the third, her eyes were shut as a huge bubble blew out of her mouth.
The writer's point was that "This girl is different, and to impose our standards on her might be to inhibit the God-given athletic talent and curiosity that makes her so unique in golf. ... She is the same as a brilliant 13-year-old who is enrolled in college, only she is enrolled in golf."
The ultimate responsibility of guiding Michelle from prodigy to prodigious international talent, and ensuring she is not exploited or her amateur status endangered, lies with BJ and Bo.
That responsibility is mind-boggling because the expectations are so great. People describe Michelle Wie in terms of the astonishing impact she could have on the game and the million-dollar endorsements she should command.
But she is barely 14, and in her first semester of high school. Her life is already an open book, but her future is an open-ended question.
The Wies are asked why she doesn't play more junior events with her peers. Earl Woods, probably the closest thing to a "role model" the Wies have, did not allow Tiger to play against adults until he was 16. He won nearly 40 amateur titles.
"The idea was for the kid to learn how to win," Ferguson recalls. "And he did."
Steven Hamblin, Executive Director of the American Junior Golf Association for more than 20 years, says his organization is not designed "to create tour players," but to give kids exposure for college scholarships. It also helps them "build their market-ability" and allows them to make mistakes "under the radar."
In contrast, the radar zeroes in on the Wies. Michelle played few junior events here before she started to dominate women's tournaments locally. She became the youngest USGA qualifier at age 10 and its youngest champion last summer.
BJ says more than a dozen LPGA events have offered sponsor exemptions next year. He insists the family will not ask the LPGA for an exception to its rule that a player must be at least 18 to join.
"When I met (LPGA commissioner) Ty Votaw, I told him Michelle was not interested in turning professional before she's 18," BJ recalls. "Maybe 22, but 18 is too young to play professional golf.
"She can really burn out at 18 if she turns professional. She's having fun because she doesn't have to worry about making money or supporting her family. It won't be fun anymore if she plays to make money, make a car payment. She will remain an amateur as long as possible. That's her goal."
At this point, Michelle's goals blur with those of her parents. One day, that will change. What is crucial now is to walk the fragile path between "challenging" and "pushing" while everyone watches. Pessimists wonder how long it will be before the Wies cash in or crash.
Ultimately though, the question is about bringing up a little girl with a tremendous talent.
Kim likes what she sees.
"There's a very fine line between challenging and pushing," Kim says. "The difference is having them engage in something they love versus having them engage in something you want them to love.
"You watch Michelle on the course. When she makes birdie, her face lights up. You can still see the thrill of victory. You beat the hole, got the ball in with that silly little club. It's definitely still a challenge for her. She's not being pushed at all. Plus, the way they are ... both parents are wonderful people, very intelligent and intuitive. There's no question in my mind they will do what's best for her."
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com or 525-8043.
Expenses: Approximately $70,000
Prize money turned back: $69,836
Miles traveled: Approximately 55,000
Jan. 13: Sony Open in Hawai'i qualifying, 73iT47 of 96 at Pearl CC
Feb. 7-9: Hawai'i Pearl Open, 224iT43 at Pearl CC ($153)
March 13-16: State Amateur, 286iT4 at Pearl CC
March 27-30: LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship, 288iT9 in California ($34,000, refused because of amateur rules)
April 25-27: LPGA Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, 214iT33 in Georgia ($7,695)
May 23: Braces removed
June 9: Qualified for U.S. Women's Open in Florida. Exempts her from local qualifying for U.S. Girls' Junior until she is 18, and 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur.
June 17-22: Wins U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links in Florida. Defeats former NCAA champion Virada Nirapathpongporn 1-up in final to become youngest to win USGA amateur championship and gets first victory outside of Hawai'i. Exempts her from sectional qualifying for the next 10 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championships and sectional qualifying for the next two U.S. Women's Amateur Championships. Also exempt from local qualifying for the next five U.S. Women's Open Championships (still must qualify at sectional).
June 27-29: ShopRite LPGA Classic, 215iT52 at New Jersey ($3,835)
July 3-6: U.S. Women's Open, 298iT39 at Oregon ($18,783)
July 21-24: U.S. Girls' Junior, lost to Morgan Pressel, 3 and 2, third round at Connecticut
Aug. 4-7: U.S. Women's Amateur, lost to Venezuela's Maru Martinez, 1-up, first round at Pennsylvania
Aug. 14-15: LPGA Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, 145imissed cut at Ohio
Aug. 21-22: Canadian Tour Bay Mills Open Players' Championship, 153imissed cut at Michigan
Aug. 25: First day of high school
Sept 15: Kraft/Nabisco Skins Game benefit with John Daly, vs. Nancy Lopez/Hank Kuehne at Idaho
Sept. 18-21: Nationwide Tour Albertsons Boise Open, 154imissed cut at Idaho
Sept. 26-28: LPGA Safeway Classic, 214iT28 at Oregon ($9,990)
Oct. 31-Nov. 2: LPGA CJ Nine Bridges Classic at Korea, 23369 ($3,075)