- Jeff Merron
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STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. -- A bronze marker set into the ground just outside the ropes reads "150." A reporter counts the paces from the marker to the longest ball on No. 18. Fifteen. Then comes the quick calculation: 460-150=310, 310-15=295. Michelle Wie's final drive of her 31-hole day at Eagle's Landing Country Club has traveled about 295 yards.
It's an average 1-wood for Wie, but as the large gallery that accompanies golf's latest starling arrives to watch her second shot, they repeat the ritual: Starting at the bronze marker. Pacing back to the ball. Doing the math. "280." "About 300." "290."
"And she's only 14," says someone from the gallery.
Wie, in fact, is 13 years old. The drive estimates are rough, but that's OK. Give or take a few yards, and Wie still hits the ball farther than anyone else on the LPGA Tour. In the next year, Wie, who finished in the top 10 at the Kraft Nabisco tourney in March, and most recently tied for 33th at the Chick-fil-A Charity Classic in April, is going to get a lot better. After all, she's played in only five LPGA events.
"For a 13-year-old, it's a learning experience, and gaining more tournament experience, that's a key for her," said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. "She has everything to become one of the best in the future. But in this game, you have to pass certain tests."
Over the summer, Wie will be tested plenty. She will play in four more LPGA tournaments, make an appearance at the Bay Mills Open Players' Championship, a Canadian PGA event, in August, and will become the first female to compete on the Nationwide Tour, the men's developmental circuit, at the Boise Open in September. She'll also compete in the U.S. Women's Amateur, the U.S. Junior Girls' Championship, and the U.S. Women's Open, In her spare time, she'll spend a few weeks at the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., working with Gilchrist. She'll have plenty of time to practice her short game back home in Honolulu, without having to worry about getting to school on time.
Wie already has appeared on magazine covers, had plenty of ink spilled about her in newspapers, and has been profiled on national TV. But she'll be basking in more media attention this summer, and soaking in the cheers of awed fans and the admiration of fellow golfers at professional events.
"She loves the media attention," says her father, Byung Wook (B.J.) Wie. "It makes her work harder. She became a happier person after Nabisco [where she was in the final threesome on the final day], because she enjoys interacting with the spectators."
The big galleries and big media that her ninth-place Nabisco performance attracted has changed Michelle, he says. "She's different. She's not nervous."
B.J., a professor of transportation studies at the University of Hawaii, caddies for his daughter and supervises her practices and other aspects of her golf regimen. Michelle's mother, Hyun Kyung (Bo), a realtor and former amateur golf champ in South Korea who taught her husband how to play, also is out there every afternoon, when Michelle works on her game after school. B.J. boasts a 2 handicap, but stopped playing about four years ago. So did Bo. That was when Michelle was 9. When she began playing in tournaments.
Throughout the Wie home -- in Michelle's bedroom, in her parents' room, in the hallways -- are photos of Tiger Woods. "I collected a lot of digital images from the Internet of Tiger's swing," says B.J., who placed printouts of the photos, in sequence, around the house. It is his hope that Woods' ever-presence will infuse the Wie home with the secrets of his success.
Woods is one of Michelle's heroes, and his development as a golfer provides, B.J. says, a blueprint in this age of flaming phenoms. He hasn't spoken to Earl Woods, but he's studied everything about Tiger that he could get his hands on. Including, of course, "Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life."
"Ty Tryon made a lot of money after turning pro, but he might not have been ready," Michelle recently told Business Week. "I don't want to make a lot of money for a couple of months and then not be ready."
Gilchrist, who coaches many talented junior golfers, says he's confident the Wies are following the right path. "They've thought about their schedule," he says. "I don't think it's too much golf. Every experience she's had so far has been positive."
'You're famous, aren't you?'
This is all pretty new to her. All the media attention, playing in tour events with big crowds. Before Nabisco, she was a local phenom, famous in Hawaii but pretty much unknown elsewhere. In the past few months, though, it's been Wiesy's world. "A lot of people know who I am, so it surprises me," she says. "But nothing really changed about me and stuff."
That's not a cynical "J-Lo from the block" line, either. She's as close to normal as a 13-year-old can get, considering that she spends most of her free time playing golf. But because of the golf, her everyday life is jam-packed. She's up every morning at 6:30, but still gets to school late most of the time. ("There's a rule in our class that if you're late three times you have to buy donuts," she says, "And I've already bought donuts. So I told them I'm not buying them anymore, even if I'm late.")
School ends at 2:40 p.m., and then Michelle's off to one of the three courses she plays regularly. She heads home after dark, showers, eats dinner, then works out for a half hour -- for stamina, she says. She's asleep by 10 p.m.
Somehow, she squeezes in time for her non-golf friends -- hanging out at the mall (though not as much as she'd like to), watching her favorite TV shows ("Smallville," "Charmed," "The Gilmore Girls"), catching a lot of movies ("I watched a really old movie a few weeks ago called 'Big,' with Tom Hanks.") She also reads -- most of the Harry Potter series, and her favorite book, "A Walk to Remember," by Nicholas Sparks.
But don't look for a LeBron James-like entourage surrounding her, though she's every bit as big on the golf course as King James is on the hardcourts. Her friends accord her the usual respect that 13-year-olds give each other. "They're like, 'You're famous, aren't you?' " Wie says with smile. "They're always teasing me about it. They're like, 'I couldn't watch TV all day spring break because my dad was watching you.' "
'My ultimate goal is to place in The Masters'
Michelle Wie looks older than 13, mostly because of her height. Just shy of 6 feet tall and about 160 pounds, Wie could be awkward and uncoordinated, but she seems comfortable within her own body. Lanky would be the word for her -- there can't be an ounce of fat there -- but it's a word that doesn't fit right for someone who's so smooth, for someone with an athletic demeanor that speaks of tremendous ease.
Maybe it's that ease that enables her to get a ball flying 280 or 290 yards or more with consistency. She averaged 286 yards at the Kraft, which would put her at 82nd place on the PGA Tour this year, ahead of 100 other golfers tracked on the Tour's Web site, and just four yards shy of Tiger's average.
Her father says her power comes from her lower body, that strong legs and hips and long arms also help. She doesn't lift weights -- that will come later -- but she wants to blast the hell out of the ball. "From the beginning, she enjoyed hitting the ball as hard as possible," B.J. says. "She's not interested in hitting straight, but in going far."
That obsession apparently began early. The first time her parents handed her a golf club, she was 4½ years old. "She hit balls right and left with [a] 10-finger grip," B.J. wrote in an e-mail. "She was able to drive the ball over 100 yards with carry and rolls." It was all caught on tape.
Gilchrist, the director of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, has worked with Michelle since February 2002. She's at the leading edge, he says, of junior golfers we'll be hearing about at ages that will continue to get younger and younger. "In today's era, they come up with better fundamentals," he says. "You're getting 7- and 8-year-olds who are shooting scores that have never been shot before. The coaching's improved and the equipment's improved."
But, he adds, "She's the first I've seen with that kind of power and ability in her game. There are a lot of girls who have the mental strength [to succeed against the pros] but not the physical."
"I was very impressed by her game," said Barb Mucha, a 17-year LPGA veteran who was paired with Wie at the Chick-fil-A tournament. "For two days, she was a very complete player. She has good fundamentals. Her swing is pretty flawless. It was quite impressive to see her hit the ball."
In the end, Gilchrist says the booming drives and the natural ability are only part of the equation. "She needs to have the intensity and hunger to win. ... An important facet is the kind of goals you have long term. A lot of pros, they set low goals, and they win one event and you never hear from them again." But the greats, like Tiger, "you can't put in a mold. They think outside the box. They want to do something nobody else has done."
This doesn't seem like it will be much of a problem for Michelle. "My ultimate goal is to play in The Masters," she says.
She's sitting a mere 140 miles from Augusta, just a few weeks after Martha Burk held a tiny demonstration in that town in an attempt to open the club's membership to women. Michelle knows a month after she says this, Annika Sorenstam will compete later this month at the Colonial, a PGA Tour event in Fort Worth, Texas.
But Burk and Wie couldn't be more different in their attempts to break barriers at Augusta. Burk's cause is political, suffused with issues of gender and power. Wie's quest is much more personal.
"She will talk in the press room about playing in The Masters, and people might laugh," Gilchrist told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But that's the mentality of what she's thinking about. When I was 12, I wanted to break 80 for the first time; she's thinking about The Masters. You have to understand that that's how she thinks."
'They tell me I'm a really fast learner'
Fifty million dollars in five years.
That's how much Wie could earn in endorsment deals, says Jane Blalock, LPGA Senior Tour president and a former LPGA star who now runs her own Boston-based golf marketing company.
"With the growth of interest in women's golf, and everyone looking for the next Nancy Lopez and the next Tiger Woods -- Michelle could be both of them wrapped into one. She's wholesome; she's a phenomenal athlete. The LPGA has been dominated by international players, so the fact that she's from the U.S. will have tremendous appeal."
So why wait?
"I don't think she's interested in money right now," B.J. says. "She doesn't know what to do with it."
For now, money is flowing the other direction: out. B.J. estimates they spent $50,000 last year on Michelle's golf, and says they'll spend another $70,000 in 2003. That's a lot of dough. The family can afford it, he says, but they're not rich.
"People ask me about being her caddie," B.J. says. "It's because I have no choice. It costs $1,000, up front, to hire a PGA caddie."
In other words, there's a limit.
And there's a plan. Part of the payback for what the Wies consider their "investment" in Michelle will be, they hope, a college scholarship. Stanford, Tiger's alma mater, is the top choice right now.
Michelle could swing it at Stanford, both on the golf course and in the classroom. She's currently in eighth grade at Punahou School, an elite prep school whose graduates include AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case. Last semester her worst grade was a B+ -- in Chinese. In all of her other courses, she earned straight A's.
She does her homework right after school, in the car, on the way to the golf course. Every once in a while, she'll have to finish it in the car, on the way home. "They tell me I'm a really fast learner," she says. "Other people, they take like two hours to do their homework. I finish in like 15 minutes. I don't know how I do that."
It's probably not because the material is easy. Punahou has students in grades K-12, and with 3,700 students, it's the largest private school in the U.S. It's also the best private school in Hawaii; 99 percent of graduates attend college. The average combined SAT score of Punahou students is, according to Peterson's Private Secondary Schools 2004 report, 1307 -- or 287 points above the national average of 1020. In 2001, only 11 percent of high school students scored better than 1300 on the test.
'We're taking a scientific approach'
Although B.J. Wie is best known for being Michelle's father and caddie, he also has his own career. He moved to the U.S. from his native South Korea in 1983, and by 1988 had received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
Among the courses he teaches are "Air Travel Management" and "Surface Passenger Transportation Management." His research interests, according to his faculty page, include "Dynamic Spatial Price Equilibrium Analysis" and "Intelligent Transportation Systems."
B.J.'s complex, intellectual understanding of the way people and things move in time and space sometimes comes in handy on the golf course. After Michelle's good showing at the Chick-fil-A, he said they needed to work on her short game.
"We're taking a scientific approach. We're going to do a lot of scientific experiments with putting and reading the breaks," he says. "I'm going to have some kind of mathematical formula for reading the breaks, some kind of decision rule, depending on the angle."
The fast, unfamiliar LPGA greens cause problems for both the golfer and the caddie. Wie admits that using a "decision rule" for putting isn't ideal, but they're working with what they have. What they don't have, in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, are fast greens. What Michelle doesn't have, when she plays in LPGA events, is a pro caddie, the kind of caddie who knows from years of experience how to play the fast, tough greens.
What they do have is a desire to improve Michelle's game, while following their own rules.
But some wonder if she's being pushed too hard, too soon. Golf Digest columnist Ron Sirak, noting that Wie "looked like she wanted to cry" after a stretch of three-putts at Nabisco, suggested she should "play with kids her own age."
B.J. responded to Sirak in an e-mail: "You are definitely right that Michelle was about to cry after making three or four three-putts. I was about to cry, too. Fortunately she did not cry and tried to make birdies on the 17th and 18th holes. I think she deserves a lot of respect for her positive attitude."
"Michelle is very fortunate to have some talent and be at the right place at the right time," B.J. added, noting he believes that to improve, Michelle needs better competition, and that she enjoys playing in the LPGA events.
"When you talk to her, she sounds like a 13-year-old," Mucha said. "But on the course, she carries herself as well as anyone." Mucha, who's won five events, also was impressed with Wie's composure.
'The money ruins the relationship'
There are lots of things that can go wrong as child prodigies make their way to adulthood. B.J. Wie has given this a great deal of thought. The obstacles, he says, fall into three categories: injuries, money matters, and loss of interest.
Injury prevention is an important part of Michelle's program. Her fitness program, focusing on core muscles and balance, is a priority.
The money puzzle already has been solved. B.J. sees big dollars as big trouble. He's seen that the problems created by a financial windfall are bigger than the problems solved. "The money ruins the relationship" between the parents and child, and therefore, the second rule: "She is not playing for money until she graduates from college. The money matters will not prevent her from being a good golfer."
Loss of interest? B.J. doesn't think so -- she loves the game, loves the spotlight. But if she were to drop golf entirely, well, that would be OK, too. "It's possible she might want to be a teacher, a financial analyst, a makeup artist. It changes every week."
Though Michelle is making her mark in LPGA events, her sights are set on the men -- she wants to play on the PGA Tour.
The idea of playing against men doesn't faze her. "It's kind of natural for me," she says. "When I was really young, when I was 5, I was the only girl on the boy's baseball team, so it came natural to me. I just wanted to play with the boys."
She's already proven she can do it. She tried to qualify for the PGA Sony Open, and tied for 47th in a field of 97. Ninety-six of those players were men. And in her home state of Hawaii, she regularly tees off against the top male amateurs.
"I believe that the top 10 women on the LPGA Tour have the game to compete with the men," Gilchrist says. "You can't have them go to one event and judge them by that. If they played on the PGA Tour, they'd make adjustments. The difference between [today's top 10 women] and Michelle Wie, when she gets to 17 or 18 years old, I think she has the desire to compete with the men, and it's already been put in her mind."
And, he says, "she has the game to do it."
Even before this year, Wie gave some strong hints of what may be. She shot a 64 at age 10, when she also became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for the USGA Women's Amateur Public Links. In 2002, at the age of 12, she became the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event, the Takefuji Classic. She played in three LPGA events last year, failing to make the cut, but not failing to make an impression.
Recently, in the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, she shot a 66, tying the LPGA record for lowest round by an amateur in a major.
'I like the attention'
Wearing a black vest over a white shirt, and khaki, calf-length pants, Wie spins off on a golf cart that ferries her between the eighth and ninth holes at the Chick-fil-A. Close behind is a gallery larger than that of tourney leader Karrie Webb. As the cart stops before crossing a road, a young fan -- maybe 8 or 9 years old -- comes up to Michelle and asks for an autograph. Without hesitation, and with a smile, she signs.
She's in the middle of a long day, in which she'll play nearly two rounds. She's battling to make the cut, to play on Sunday in the three-round tourney. But autographs are important.
"I like the attention," she says later. "It makes me work harder." When told that her gallery was about twice as large as the one following Webb, she takes it in stride: "I feel happy because I guess people are attracted to me playing."
Wie's got the youth vote, and because of her heritage -- both her mother and father were born in South Korea -- she also has the Korean crowd behind her. "They were cheering for me the loudest and it was pretty funny," she says.
Just two hours after landing at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, still dazed from a 15-hour overnight plane ride from Honolulu, Wie poses for photos with middle-aged men and women beside the practice green. She smiles for the pictures, and it's not forced. She must be tired, must be eager to have her first look at Eagle's Landing, but she doesn't seem to be in any hurry.
Two days later, following her second round on Saturday, she patiently signed autographs for at least a half an hour, even though she had been out on the course for 10 hours.
Then, media time. She handles interviews with both local print reporters and seasoned national TV correspondents without breaking a sweat. The give-and-take is easy -- unforced and untutored. No slock or evasive answers. No signs of impatience.
'They're going to be lining up'
While all the attention is focused on Annika Sorenstam at the Colonial this week, Michelle Wie will be finishing up her school year. She'll make her next LPGA appearance at the end of June, playing in the Shoprite Classic in New Jersey.
B.J. thinks Michelle can win one of her LPGA events this summer. It's possible, but it won't be easy. "She's got most of the qualities you need to win," Mucha said.
That's just part of the equation, Gilchrist observes. "At the end of the day, you have to put yourself in a position to win. For a 13-year-old, that is a really high goal, but I think she has the game to go with it. I think she has the game to win tournaments."
And, says Blalock, Wie has the Woods-like appeal to transcend sports. "People are going to be waiting and watching," she said. "If she is guided properly, they're going to be lining up."
Annika beat her to the first tee, but Michelle Wie wants to be the first female to earn a PGA Tour card.