Watching Wie mature before my eyes
SUGAR GROVE, Ill. -- The e-mail would be waiting in my ESPN inbox after almost every missed cut, after every season that passed without a win, after every messy controversy.
The gist of the message -- never signed, by the way -- was always the same: Michelle Wie was a golf fraud -- an overhyped, overendorsed, overnight teenage freak show who eventually would flame out and disappear. The e-mailer took a perverted joy in her failures, a warped sense of I-told-you-so satisfaction in her struggles.
Figures -- I didn't get an e-mail last week. That's when Wie, still just a teenager, was named to the U.S. Solheim Cup team, which, for the golf illiterate, is the equivalent of the Ryder Cup for women.
Wie was a captain's pick, not a charity pick. Anybody who thinks she was chosen by Beth Daniel to artificially crank up interest and TV ratings doesn't know golf or Daniel. She was here at Rich Harvest Farms, in the cornfields of far-west suburban Chicago, because she belongs. Period. End graph.
"There's always been this great debate over Michelle," Daniel said. "And there will continue to be this great debate over Michelle. But the bottom line is, she's just one of us trying to make the best of a career on the LPGA Tour."
There was a practice round Wednesday morning that turned into an alternate-shot match between the pairing of Wie and Cristie Kerr versus Nicole Castrale and Angela Stanford. Castrale and Stanford closed them out on No. 17, but earlier in the match, Wie holed a shot from 140 yards out. Afterward, they all exchanged hugs and then decided to pose for a quick foursome photo.
Wie looked, well, happy. She is part of something, and for the first time in a long time, that something isn't Team Wie, or IMG, or Nike. She is one of 12, a rookie on a U.S. Solheim Cup team that features Juli Inkster, another captain's pick who has a daughter the same age as Wie.
"She's just been bouncing around with the biggest smile on her face, and that's a real neat thing to see," said U.S. assistant captain Meg Mallon of Wie.
Wie has been through so much, won so little (a 2003 U.S. Amateur Public Links title), and has had her motives and career plans criticized more than any other golfer's. And yet, she is the one LPGA player whose scores you actually look for in the agate. Like it or not, Wie is women's golf's Tiger Woods -- but without the trophy presentations.
"This is a huge moment in her life," said Solheim teammate and close friend Christina Kim. "Absolutely there should be lots of focus on her."
There was Wednesday. Reporters and camera crews formed a three-deep semicircle around her after the late-morning match. Even more attention will be paid to her when the three-day competition begins Aug. 21.
"She's very tranquil," Kim said. "She just rolls with the waves."
And sometimes, the waves roll her. I first met Wie when she was 13 or 14 years old. She was playing in the pro-am at the Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua's Plantation course. I'm pretty sure she had braces.
Since then, Wie has tried to qualify for U.S. Opens and PGA Tour events -- and gotten ripped for doing so. She mostly stiff-armed amateur events, cashed endorsement checks, injured her wrist, dipped her toes into the women's tour, enrolled at Stanford, finally did the Q-school thing, and has earned more than a half-million dollars on the LPGA Tour this rookie season. That wouldn't pay for a dinghy on Tiger's yacht, but it's good enough for 17th on the LPGA money list and sixth in points in 2009 alone on the Cup points list.
Asked what she would change if she could have a career mulligan, Wie said, "I probably wouldn't have ran and broke my wrist [in '07]. I have not run since then. Sometimes I feel like the weirdest things happen to me. It was a freak accident.
"But there's no such things as mulligans in life. You make mistakes -- you learn from them, and you move forward. I've definitely not had a perfect career so far. I've done a lot of good things, I feel like. I've done a lot of bad things. I've done a lot of things I maybe shouldn't have done. And I've done a lot of things that I've been proud of. And that's just life. I've never done this before. There's some situations I've never been in before, and you just have to take risks and learn from them if you don't succeed."
And then someone asked her about the course. Sigh.
Wie is a veteran and a rookie at the same time. Her career arc is like no one else's.
"We've all watched her grow up," Mallon said. "You knew she was always a smart kid, but it's great to see her grow up and be such a mature, young woman, and to be able to handle what she's been able to handle I think that was everyone's concern when she was 12, 13 years old -- getting so much attention. I always made the statement that there was no handbook on how to raise a phenom."
Wie will be a junior at Stanford in the fall. But her golf bag still has little stuffed animals hanging from the towel loops. She's 19 going on "sometimes on 40, and sometimes on 12," Mallon said.
Daniel has known Wie since she was 13. The captain played in a tournament with her when Wie was 15. "You could almost argue she might have been better then, which is quite hard to say," Daniel said. "She just hit so many unbelievable golf shots, and you're just looking at her in awe."
There are better players than Wie on this team. Paula Creamer is match-play money. Kerr always is good for at least one win. Morgan Pressel's game fits the format. Inkster has played in seven previous Solheim Cups.
But Wie will be the player to watch. She's always the player to watch.
"As a captain's pick, sometimes you wonder, 'Do I really deserve this? Am I the right one?'" she said. "But everyone has come up to me and [said], 'I'm really glad you made it.' It's just nice to know that these girls have my back."
They have her back. They have her front and sides, too.
"It's going to be so awesome," said Wie, 19 going on 12.
Like, OMG, totally. Good news for Wie and the U.S. team. Bad news for my anti-Wie e-mailer.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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