Commentary

Just in time, Michelle Wie finally arrives

It's taken the better part of a decade, but at last she appears to be living up to the hype

Originally Published: September 1, 2010
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

Michelle WieAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesShe's still only 20 years old. Michelle Wie has plenty of professional golf ahead of her.

Winnipeg, Manitoba, is not the dateline one usually finds on a story about cage-rattling golf news. Yet that's where Michelle Wie played her way back into the headlines, back into the prediction game, back into making the unusual look business-as-usual by winning her second career pro title at the Canadian Open last weekend, a tournament she led wire to wire. With the victory, Wie wrapped up the best 12 months of her pro career. And yet -- how can this be? -- it feels as if hardly anybody is paying attention.

After all the hype that's surrounded Wie over most of the last decade, why isn't it bigger news that she might finally be on the verge of something momentous?

[+] EnlargeMichelle Wie
Darren Carroll/Getty ImagesWie's apparent emergence as a force at the top of leaderboards probably comes as good news for the LPGA.

As they're probably saying right now even at the LPGA's world headquarters in Daytona Beach, this looks like a puzzle wrapped inside a dilemma for the struggling tour.

There was a time when some LPGA players or officials might have admitted privately the only thing worse than needing Wie to be great was being told they'd have to like it.

She and her parents have always been seen as mavericks at best, misguided at worst.

But that was before the economy tanked, the women's tour began to shrink and lose prize money and sponsors, and a flock of marvelously trained, majestically pressure-proof Koreans came ashore and started not only winning everything in sight, but dominating the entire LPGA leaderboard most weekends, challenging even the most linguistically gifted American sports fans (not to mention sportswriters) to somehow keep all their Birdie Kims and Song-Hee Kims and In-Kyung Kims straight.

When Wie rose up and surprisingly led the U.S. to the Solheim Cup last August as a 19-year-old rookie on the team, going a clutch 3-0-1 in her matches, the golf world started to look at her with unjaundiced eyes again. And the success and new camaraderie seemed to unlock something in Wie.

As she says now, "I finally feel like I belong."

The Fun Factor

She's still having it. In fact, a victory at the Canadian Women's Open, a second career title and her senior year at Stanford are major sources of glee for Michelle Wie. Read Jason Sobel's blog here.

The LPGA is frantically treading water, hoping to be saved. And Wie, a long-hitting Korean-American who appeals to both the American and lucrative Asian overseas markets, still looks like the only golfer who can do the job now that Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa are long gone. As much as more-decorated fellow Americans Christie Kerr or Paula Creamer might hate to hear it, no one moves the needle like Wie. No one draws out the galleries or aaahs that she pulls in.

But of course, this is precisely the sort of breathless talk that got everyone into trouble in the first place.

After eight eventful years in the public eye, Wie is still only 20. An enormous amount has happened since people began to declare her the female version of Tiger Woods when she was 12 and already striping 300-yard drives down the middle of the fairway or beating women three and four times her age for state titles in Hawaii.

Today, even Wie agrees that some of what unfolded since then can be summarized in three words: Mistakes were made.

And yet, when asked Monday if she feels more like a champion or a survivor at this point, Wie laughs happily and shoots back, "Oh, a champion!"

Michelle Wie
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesIn 2003, Wie was in the early stages of her life as a phenom. Is it fair to say that she's finally matured when she's still only 20?

It's hard not to notice that her career and regard started to change only after she and her oft-maligned parents, B.J. and Bo, began to heed advice of been-there, done-that golf insiders such as Michelle's plain-talking swing coach, David Leadbetter, and started to color within the lines.

Wie, as an example, is no longer playing men's tour events -- for now. She came back from injuries to both wrists in 2008 and earned her LPGA Tour card at Q school fair and square, quieting the talk that she'd dined out too long as an Exemption Queen. When she finally got above the Kournikova Line (zero titles for her career) by notching her first tour win at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational three months after her Solheim breakout, no one could say she was an overhyped/underachieving Nike creation anymore. Winning twice proves that the first title wasn't a fluke.

"I think everyone makes mistakes," Wie says. "Sometimes it takes people different amounts of time to win. But it's not like I lived this life before and I could see my whole path in front of me. It was something I had never done before and my parents never experienced before, either."

No one in women's golf had, really. The only recent parallel in women's sports is the novel career path the Williams sisters took in tennis.

Serena, Venus and Wie were the first female athletic phenoms to come along in a post-Tiger, pan-racial, global marketing, grow-your-personal-brand-obsessed world. And their parents and handlers behaved as if the grooming of once-in-a-lifetime prodigal talents demanded an unconventional approach. The problem? This was sometimes construed by people outside their inner circle as, "Kiss off."

This caused some friction within the Establishment.

Wie has occasionally looked loopy or even tone deaf, but she's never really gotten nasty and bit back at her critics by asking them the obvious questions: What would you have done in the situation she and her parents faced? What would you know about what it's like to be a 12-year-old girl and have people saying that your career path is already laid out for you, and that it will be full of great things no female golfer has done before?

[+] EnlargeMichelle Wie
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/John WoodsWie led the Canadian Open wire to wire last weekend.

How perfectly would anyone else have handled it if suddenly no sports dream seemed too big or preposterous and no setback seemed too devastating? She was still in high school, for crying out loud.

In the end, after all the good and the bad, what everything always comes back to even now for Wie is that she is still only 20 going on 16 -- "I'm never going to grow up," she jokes -- and in many ways, she is still a prodigy in love with her life. And it is still impossible for her to imagine an ordinary future for herself.

She will admit there were times when she thought, "Is this worth it?" She sounds far older than 20 when she adds, "It's hard to know what's right, what's wrong. You learn to live with it." What she's found is that the reward for hanging around, for never giving in, can be what happened last weekend. Wie was so dialed in, she scored in a hole-in-one Saturday, then closed out the tournament on the back nine Sunday by rolling in birdies on 13, 14 and 15 to hold off tour money leader Jiyai Shin by two strokes.

Asked what kept her going over the years, Wie says, "I think any golfer can relate. Maybe you have a bad round, a bad tournament, then you hit one drive or one putt that really goes right, and that keeps bringing you back. Because you want to keep finding that same feeling."

Now that Wie is finally earning her bones on tour, there's no need to choose anymore between whether she's a champion or a survivor.

Spread the news: Michelle Wie is both.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.