I've had two long phone conversations with Michelle Wie. The first was when she was 10. The second, for the latest issue of ESPN The Magazine, was just a few weeks ago. So much changed in the meantime: she became famous, she became rich, she became wildly successful and then distressingly unsuccessful. She began a comeback. But to my surprise, Michelle herself is in some important ways very much unchanged.
Back in August of 2000, I traveled to Honolulu for a feature story on the University of Hawaii football team. While I waited to interview then-coach June Jones, the Hawaii sports information director, Lois Manin, told me about a local golfer who could drive the ball 300 yards. Big deal, I thought. There must be quite a few of those on Oahu. But I won't forget what she said next:
She? Is 10 years old?
Manin wrote a name on a Post-It: "B.J. Wie." Then she added an 808 number. I called the next day.
Michelle's dad put his only daughter on the phone right away. I had never interviewed a 10-year-old before, and this one had a voice so soft that I had to press the receiver to my ear just to hear her. I asked Michelle about golf. She quickly said it was "fun." I asked what else she liked to do, and she went into a lengthy tribute to Digimon, Pokemon, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Gelly Roll pens. I sheepishly asked the difference between Digimon and Pokemon and she graciously explained in detail.
I asked Michelle to name her favorite golfer. She didn't hesitate: "Tiger Woods." I asked if she thought she could beat him. She said she could, one day, maybe when she was 15.
But by age 15, Michelle Wie would be in the quarterfinals of the Amateur Public Links tournament, three matches away from earning a trip to the Masters. The next year, at 16, she came within a few good putts of qualifying for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Then, within weeks, her game began to disintegrate. Golf stopped looking "fun," and Michelle rarely gave one-on-one interviews. Nobody knew the extent of her wrist injuries, and nobody knew the extent of her inner struggle. As her troubles grew during 2007 and the early part of 2008, there was debate over whether she would continue to play golf, and she surprised many by going to LPGA Q-School last December and playing well enough to earn her Tour card. Was the bubbly Michelle Wie I first spoke with in 2000 still there? Or was she simply going through the motions now, relying on her supreme talent to stay in the sport?
To find out, I went again to B.J., who once again put Michelle on the phone with me. She was in the car this time, on her way to practice near Stanford's campus. She told me about how much pain she endured, how tired she was all the time, how, at times, she wondered if golf was worth it. She admitted right away, "I was not healthy."
But then she said how college offers a balance for her that helps keep her fresh and happy both on and off the course. What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for Wie at age 10, East Asian Studies classes do for her now. And if you look at her performance over the last decade, many of her troubles took place toward the end of the golf season, when she was worn out and away from home for an extended time. Many athletes eat, sleep and breathe their sport 24/7, even before they turn 18. Wie is not one of those athletes. She is as committed to school as she is to her sport, and that approach has likely done her more good than harm.
There is such a thing as too much golf for Michelle Wie. It has taken many of her critics and supporters a while to figure that out, but if you look back at what she said at age 10, Wie herself knew it all along.