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The Making of a Champion
By Jennifer Mario
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Artists Literary Group
All rights reserved.
The Early Years
I like to be the first to do anything.
I like to be the best.
At just sixteen years old, Michelle Sung Wie has made quite a name for herself in the golf world. She's been playing with professionals since she was twelve and has become not just an icon but also a role model for kids and adults alike.
But golf wasn't always the only sport in Michelle's life. When she was little, her parents tried to expose her to as many activities as possible. She gave them all a chance: baseball, soccer, tennis, and of course golf. But it wasn't long before it became clear that other sports weren't for her — they involved way too much running, which Michelle can't stand.
Maybe golf is in her genes. Her father, BJ (short for Byung Wook), is an avid golfer and a 2-handicap player (very good, in other words — see the sidebar on page 20). And her mother, Hyun Kyong (nicknamed Bo), was an amateur champion back in South Korea, where both Michelle's parents are from.
Bo loved golf so much that she taught her husband to play. He was hooked immediately. So it seemed only natural that when Michelle was born she would love it, too — and she did. They started, when she was four years old, by having her hit some balls at a nearby baseball field. After she knocked a few right out of the park, they brought her to the range instead. Michelle took to golf right away. She would follow her parents to the course and hit balls with them for hours.
Even now her parents stay with her when she practices; they sit next to her as she hits bucket after bucket of balls, rolling her balls back to her as she putts. An only child, Michelle always got plenty of attention from her parents.
Michelle showed signs of precociousness in many areas, not just golf. According to her parents, she began walking at just nine months and also showed an early talent for academics. "We asked her to solve algebraic questions when she was about ten," BJ told John Hopkins of the London Times. "She is a fast reader. She was really good at reading, English, mathematics, at a young age, but we spent more energy at golf. She started practicing her autograph at a very young age. She was reading and recognizing letters at age one."
This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, considering her father has a Ph.D. (in city and regional planning) from the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania. He works as a professor in the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, although he has taken some time off to travel with Michelle. Michelle's uncle Bong Wie is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Arizona State, and her grandfather Sang-Kyu Wie retired from a career as professor of aeronautics at Seoul National University (Korea's equivalent of Harvard — its most prestigious university). It's not a stretch to say that intelligence runs in the Wie family.
If not for golf, Michelle might be pursuing a career in academics as well. Even as a child, she declared that her goal was to someday be a professor, like her father, uncle, and grandfather. Stanford was, and still is, her school of choice. For one thing, it's known for its top golf team. For another, she has a family connection to the school, since Stanford is where her uncle received his doctorate and her grandfather taught as a visiting professor. And of course, it doesn't hurt that her golf hero, Tiger Woods, attended Stanford. Though turning pro means she won't be able to play on Stanford's golf team, she can still arrange to study there, even while playing professional tournaments.
Michelle's mother, Bo, is no slouch herself. She received her Realtor's license and works as a successful real estate agent in Honolulu. Both parents were born in Seoul (the capital of South Korea) but met and married in Los Angeles in 1987 before making their way to Honolulu two years later. Michelle was born later that same year, on October 11, 1989.
BJ and Bo played in a local league at the Olomana Golf Links, a club near their home in Honolulu, just off the Kalanianaole Highway. Michelle would come along just to follow them, but it wasn't long before her parents were tagging along after her.
She could hit a ball 100 yards not long after picking up clubs for the first time — she always swung as hard as possible. The first time Michelle played a full 18-hole round, at age seven, she scored an 86 — keep in mind there are plenty of adults who play golf for years and never score that well. At age nine, she broke par — an amazing accomplishment many adults never achieve (see the following sidebar).
It wasn't just talent Michelle inherited from her parents; she acquired a serious work ethic as well. Even as a child, she would practice hitting balls for hours every day — three or four hours after school, then seven or eight hours on weekends. Her parents would come along, and her father would check her swing against photos of Tiger Woods that he kept in his wallet. By age eight, she could beat both of her parents.
FINDING A COACH
When they began losing to their eight-year-old regularly, BJ and Bo realized that it was time to get Michelle some professional instruction. Recognizing that their child had real potential in competitive golf, they sought out an instructor who could teach Michelle not just how to swing a club properly but also how to compete. They wanted an instructor with playing experience, someone who had won in tournament situations.
The natural first place to look was the Olomana Golf Links in Honolulu, where they spent most of their leisure time. The instructor they chose was Casey Nakama.
Casey Nakama runs a golf school for juniors at Olomana, the Casey Nakama Golf Development Center. At the time, Nakama had built a reputation for himself as a strong competitor, having played professionally on the Asia Golf Circuit and having won many local tournaments, including the JAL Rainbow Open, the Hawaii State Open, the Maui Open (twice), the Makaha Open, the Hilo Open, the Waikoloa Open, and the Mid-Pacific Open.
To the Wies, it was critical that Michelle's coach would have real-life competition experience. Says Nakama, "Mr. Wie wanted a player-teacher to help Michelle, rather than just a teacher. At that time I was still competing in tournaments here, and I was still in contention in most of the tournaments here, so they chose me based on my reputation as a player. The feeling of being in contention, the feeling of having to make a cut, that is a feeling only players understand. A teacher who's never been in that situation could never tell a player what it feels like. So that's one thing I could pass on to them because I've been in a lot of those situations, trying to make cuts, trying to win golf tournaments."
You might wonder if Michelle stood out right away, if her talent was immediately obvious to her first coach. The answer is no. What impressed him about her wasn't her talent but her height: "She was taller than most of the girls that we had. But she wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary; she wasn't one of the better players. It's just that she was a little bit stronger than most of the girls." At age nine, Michelle already stood 5' 7", and was still growing.
By the end of her time with Nakama, that had changed; Michelle would soon be winning tournaments around the entire state of Hawaii.
But where did she start? What were her first lessons like? According to Nakama, they started with the basics. He could see that her initial training with her parents had left her with a sound swing, but a few adjustments were in order. "The first few sessions we had were in fixing up some mechanical, some basic fundamental stuff with her pitching motion," he recalls.
"Since she was taller for her age, I always felt that she would hit shorter clubs than most of the other girls. So we worked on her wedges right away. We worked on her grip a little bit, put it in a more neutral position. We just fixed up the pitching motion basically, and we fixed up her short game swing."
What Michelle may have initially lacked in skill she made up for with her work ethic. While most of the kids in Nakama's program were there just to have fun, Michelle showed right away that she could put in serious effort. After her weekly lesson, Michelle would spend hours perfecting her new skill.
"Even at ten years old, she didn't mind practicing every day. For whatever reason that separates her from other players, she was just determined to do whatever we were working on. We would make a swing adjustment, and she would work on it, and she would come back in three or four days and say, 'I think I got it, Casey.' She was just determined in that way. That work ethic that she had, it separates her from a lot of the other players."
With most of his students, Nakama had to remind them to practice the skills they learn during lessons. Not so with Michelle: "She was self-motivated and she did it on her own. Whatever we worked on for that week, she would be here for the next three, four days in a row, working on it. I didn't have to tell her how much time to practice because she practiced more than enough."
The club encouraged her to practice as much as she wanted, allowing her free use of the range. Her mother would pick her up from school and they would head straight to the golf course, with Michelle finishing her homework in the backseat. Luckily for her, homework never took very long. "They tell me I'm a really fast learner," she told Jeff Merron of ESPN at one point. "Other people, they take like two hours to do their homework. I finish in like fifteen minutes. I don't know how I do that."
And when she was out of school for the summer, she would take advantage of all those extra practice hours, showing up at the course by 9:30 A.M. and playing until dark.
Michelle's willingness to put in the long hours may have had something to do with her upbringing. She was, after all, raised by two Korean parents, and they raised her with Korean values — specifically, they taught her that, first, success comes only with very hard work and, second, education is paramount.
Take a look at the life of someone Michelle's age living in Korea. A typical high-schooler's schedule goes something like this: school from 7:30 A.M. until 4:00 P.M. An after-school tutoring program until 7:00 or 8:00 P.M. Dinner and chores, then late nights completing homework or practicing a musical instrument. Caught up on all your homework? Then it's time to read ahead, study a foreign language, or practice for college entrance exams. In the United States, students begin learning calculus in college. In Korea, calculus is standard for tenth-graders. If a child is particularly gifted in a sport or music, they spend twenty or more hours a week perfecting their skills. Free time for students is not just rare; it's unheard of.
It's hard for Americans to imagine subjecting their children to that lifestyle of constant work, but for Korean parents there's nothing unusual about it. They feel lowering their expectations would be a disservice to their children, because ultimately, a strong work ethic breeds success. To Koreans, allowing their children freedom over their schedule would be irresponsible, a guaranteed path to failure. This is the upbringing that Michelle's parents had in Korea, and the one they passed along to her.
But before you start thinking that Michelle lives a deprived life, keep in mind that living in the United States — particularly in laid-back Hawaii — Michelle enjoys far more freedoms than her Korean school-age counterparts. She spends time with her friends and enjoys shopping and hobbies like drawing and designing earrings. In her interests, she's all-American. But her work ethic is as Korean as can be. The good news is, Michelle thrives on this schedule and wouldn't change a thing.
TRAINING WITH CASEY NAKAMA
Nakama's program emphasizes not just swing training but on-course experience as well. His students generally spend some time in individual lessons and also learn the rules of the game, etiquette, club selection, course management, and strategy by playing on the course itself.
Nakama kept things interesting for Michelle by having her try a variety of drills and exercises. While many instructors simply have their charges pound bucket after bucket of balls on the range, his lessons focused on actual match situations. To get her accustomed to unusual lies, he had her practice hitting balls out from behind trees and introduced complex shots, including hooks, fades, and draws.
"As a player sometimes we run into problems and you've got to be able to do certain things, so that was this thing that we did, hit running 5 irons and 7 irons, trying to get her ready for some trouble shots," he says. She loved the games he would design for her. "It's important to keep things fun," Nakama says.
Michelle had what golf instructors dream of — coachability — and Nakama appreciated this. "When we worked on something, in the following week I would see her and I would know that the change would already be made," he says.
All that work paid off. At age ten, Michelle shot an 8-under-par 64 at Olomana, a score that still ranks as her personal best. Her mother might have credited something else as well. Every day, she created a concoction for Michelle using ginseng, some herbs, and juices from goat and snake — an old Korean recipe that has supposed mental and strength benefits. Not surprisingly, Michelle wasn't a fan, grimacing with every swallow, but she drank it anyway. Consider it an indication of her commitment to improving.
Yet even with her scores dropping and her practice time expanding, Michelle was still just a kid. "She still was the same, when she was here — she was just a teenager," says Nakama. "That was the amazing thing; she would be in the office watching TV, watching cartoons, and she would be a typical kid. But then when she stepped outside and started playing golf, her concentration level would change." On the course Michelle became as serious as any elite athlete. But off the course she was a normal child, enjoying hanging out at the mall and watching television (anything from Tom and Jerry to American Idol) and silly movies (she once called Dumb & Dumber her "ultimate favorite").
"I can really separate my own life and golf," she said once during a Q & A with the LPGA. "It's not really hard to take me away from golf. I just love it so much that I always come back. But I love vacations, I love shopping, going out with my friends. I don't know, I'm not really ... an all-golf kind of person. I have my own life, too."
Michelle's First Accomplishments
* Age 4: Took her first golf swing.
* Age 7: Played her first full round of golf; shot an 86.
* Age 8: Could beat both of her parents.
* Age 9: Began private lessons with Casey Nakama at the Olomana Golf Links.
* Age 9: Broke par for the first time.CHAPTER 2
Raising the Bar
People always ask why I do what I
do and why not just follow the
conventional path. My answer is
very simple. I always wanted to
push myself to the limit.
Although Michelle has said that she loved golf from the first time she picked up a club, her old coach, Casey Nakama, thinks otherwise. "When we first got started, I don't think she really loved golf; I think she liked it. But as she got better and she saw that she had an advantage playing this game, because of her strength, then she started to like the game a little bit more because she could really dominate. Of course with anything, if you're the best then you're going to enjoy it a little bit more. Competing made her even more driven. Even at eleven years old, she got really intense."
That competitive streak has stood Michelle in good stead. The legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias (see the following sidebar) would reportedly enter locker rooms before a tournament and call out, "Okay, ladies, who's playing for second?"
Michelle has many things in common with Babe, including a killer instinct. At just twelve years old, Michelle told The Honolulu Advertiser, "Some players, you can just sort of tell when you're getting to them. It's like they die, die, die-die-die, and then, you know ... they die." Even then, there was nothing Michelle liked better than to get the best of her opponents.
Of course, like many kids, Michelle was motivated by something else as well: pocket money. For every par she made on the course, her parents gave her a quarter. Over time, the amount grew, all the way up to five dollars for each birdie.
So she may not have been a superstar right out of the gate, but Michelle did show talent and a strong work ethic. And, importantly, the drive to win. Nakama placed her in many of the area's junior competitions, where she excelled.
Excerpted from Michelle Wie by Jennifer Mario. Copyright © 2006 Artists Literary Group. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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