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Sure Thing: The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wieby Eric Adelson
Michelle Wie couldn’t miss. No way. Big success? It was only a matter of time. At four she could drive a golf ball a hundred yards. At ten she was outdriving adult male golfers in her Honolulu hometown–from the back tees. At thirteen she won the Women’s Amateur Public Links, becoming the youngest person ever to win a USGA championship. The next year she was playing in LPGA and PGA Tour tournaments. At sixteen she was earning eight figures in endorsements. Yet by the time she turned eighteen, Michelle Wie was already branded a failure, a has-been, a victim of injuries, bad choices, and–worst of all–really terrible putting. How was it possible? How did this happen? How did she go from being the next big thing to the latest big bust?
The Sure Thing is a gripping and intimate portrait of the meteoric rise, fall, and uncertain future of the greatest sports phenom of the twenty-first century. Award-winning writer Eric Adelson takes us inside Michelle Wie’s world, showing her to be a bubbly, astonishingly normal girl trapped in a world of outsize expectations. In chronicling Wie’s career, Adelson establishes a new gold standard for reporting on the growing convergence of professional sports, marketing, and mass entertainment in the Internet Age.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
The Next Tiger Woods Is . . . a Ten- Year- Old Girl? In August 2000, I flew to Honolulu to report a story for ESPN The Magazine on the most popular sports figure in the Aloha State at the time, University of Hawaii head football coach June Jones. While I waited for Coach Jones in his office, the school’s sports information director, Lois Manin, started telling me about a local golfer who could drive a ball 300 yards.
I confess I was only half listening. People pitch ideas to magazine writers all the time, and someone who hit big, booming drives didn’t sound like a rare find in golf- crazy Hawaii.
But Manin persisted.
“She’s 10 years old.”
Ten years old?
Manin scribbled a name on a blue Post- it note: B.J. Wie. She added a phone number. The girl’s name, Manin told me, was Michelle.
I returned to my hotel in Waikiki and forgot about it. The next day, I opened my notebook and saw the Post- it. I was curious. So I called and left a message for Mr. Wie. He returned my call the following day. He had a soft, almost airy voice, and often punctuated his sentences with a laugh.
“Michelle has a very normal childhood,” he said of his young daughter before I even thought to ask. He offered to put Michelle on the phone— again, before I even asked if she was home. I heard him place the receiver down on a table. Soon there was a light rustle.
Her voice was high- pitched, barely audible. I introduced myself. I had not really prepared for this interview. Was I really going to write an article about an athlete who wasn’t even a teenager?
“So you like golf?” (I had to start somewhere.)
Fun? Fine, but I wanted to see if indeed this 10- year- old really did live a “normal” life. So I asked her what she liked besides golf.
Michelle plunged into a long explanation about the differences between Digimon and Pokémon.
“What else do you like?”
Laura Ingalls Wilder—“the writer,” she explained— and Gelly Roll pens. She rattled off her favorite toys as if drawing up a list for Santa. She said she loved all kinds of animals, especially big, fluffy dogs.
“But not amphibians!”
“Who’s your favorite golfer?”
“Tiger Woods.” x • Eric Adelson
“Oh, yeah? Think you can beat him?”
“Maybe in five years.”
I smiled and listened for a laugh, any sign of a joke.
She was serious.
Two years earlier, ESPN had launched the first issue of its magazine with a cover featuring four athletes it crowned as “NEXT”—Alex Rodriguez, Kordell Stewart, Eric Lindros, and Kobe Bryant. All four would have big careers, ESPN The Magazine predicted, but they would also bring forth a revolution in their sports. Rodriguez was a rare gem at the time, a power- hitting middle infielder. Stewart was a double threat at quarterback who could throw and run. Lindros was a one- ofa- kind power forward: Gordie Howe with speed. And Bryant had stormed into the NBA without so much as a single college game on his résumé.
Michelle Wie, at the time I first spoke with her, had the potential to break more molds than all four of those athletes. If she could hit a golf ball 300 yards at age 10, what would that mean for the game of golf down the road? What kind of force would she be in the game when she grew up to be, say, 18?
Michelle Wie got a page to herself in ESPN The Magazine’s November 27, 2000, issue:
Aloha! . . . When I was 5, I hit a drive 100 yards. I had to start playing on courses after that because my drives would always go into the neighbor’s yard. During the summer, I play 18 holes and then practice. I start at 9:30 a.m. and play until 8 p.m. In the winter, I wake up at 6:30, and my mom drives me to school at 7:45. I have math, science, Spanish, art, and PE. I like science the best.
During recess, I play basketball with the boys. School ends at 2:45. I do my homework in the car. Then I play. My parents take me to Olomana Golf Course. I play 9 or 18 holes and then chip and putt. My mom carries my clubs. My dad watches. . . . I used to play with Travis and Chris. They’re 15- year- olds. But they avoid me now because I out- drive them. I usually hit the ball 230 yards. Sometimes 250. One time I hit it 300. I won every tournament against people my age, so I’ve been playing older kids. I like being better than them. On the weekends I watch golf on TV . . . the PGA Tour, not the LPGA. I like the players on the PGA Tour better. I want to play on the PGA Tour.
My favorite golfer is Tiger Woods. I think I can beat him in the near future.
Like when I’m 15.
Over the next five years, Wie became a household name in Golf Nation. The youngest golfer to win the Hawaii Women’s State Amateur Stroke Play Championship. The youngest to win the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, the state’s most prestigious ama - teur tournament for women. (When a local reporter sought her out for a quote afterward, he found her at a table, grinning, with remnants of an ice-cream sundae all over her face.) The youngest to qualify for a Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament, at 12. The youngest to win a USGA championship, at 13. The youngest to enter a PGA Tour event, at 14.
At 15, she landed on the cover of Fortune magazine and as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. At 16, Wie was named one of Time magazine’s “The Time 100, The People Who Shape Our World”—in the “Heroes and Pioneers” section no less, with the likes of former president Bill Clinton and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Clinton and Condoleezza Rice both went out of their way to play a round of golf with her. (The secretary of state fawned over her sparkling nail polish.) Wie handled all the fuss and bother with grace and aplomb. It was as though she expected all of this to happen. And then, as she got near the brink of realizing the prediction she made over the phone as a 10- year- old, everything changed.
“It’s Not That Difficult Being Me”
The man never sat down on a golf course. Never. He stood like a sentry at all times, behind the tee or on the side of the fairway, with his binoculars in play, ready to flip open his notes on the greens, ready to let out a whoop if his daughter made a big putt.
And yet on this Friday in May 2006, Michelle Wie’s father found a lush patch of grass on a steep hill overlooking the 13th green at the Sky 72 golf course just outside Seoul, and he sat down. He smiled as he took in the sight of his only daughter, Michelle, lining up a tricky left- to- right 15- foot putt for birdie. That was something rare for him, too— smiling before a big putt.
But this was a special occasion.
This was one of the happiest days of his life.
From where he sat, B.J. Wie could see the highway leading into the city where he and his wife were born. He could see cars filing away from the cloisters of skyscrapers huddled along the Han River. He knew most of the people in those cars could pick out his daughter in a crowd. So many of them took pride in her achievement, as if she were one of their own, even though she had been born in America. So many wanted to bring up their children to be just like his daughter.
And with good reason. Michelle Wie commanded a reported $700,000 in appearance fee money to play in the SK Telecom Open, a tournament on the Asian Tour with a $600,000 purse. Then there was the $50 million in endorsements she had already locked up . . .
Money, though, was only one reason B.J. grinned. He could have lounged on that hill all day and reflected on so many other wondrous things about his daughter. Michelle was a straight- A student, a kind soul, a beautiful girl, an accomplished athlete, and one of the most famous teenagers in the world. And she was competing against men, one of her biggest dreams, in an official sanctioned professional tournament, something she had done three times before at the Sony Open in her native Hawaii. What made this day truly special to B.J. Wie was that his daughter was a virtual lock to make the cut. And that was why, basking in the glow of those reveries about one of the most famous teenagers in the world, his daughter, B.J. looked like a man sitting on top of the world.
The moment Michelle stepped up to her ball, B.J. hopped back on his feet. He watched her move her putter back and forth, then saw her Nike One scoot toward the hole, only to lip out. Par. B.J. beamed anyway. Michelle, only 16, was at the top of her game, at 5 under par for the tournament with only five holes to play in the second round. Five holes away from becoming just the second woman since 1945 to make the cut in a men’s tournament. Anything could happen; B.J. knew that. But he also knew his daughter’s game, and he knew in his heart that she wouldn’t falter.
As always, Michelle was being pursued by a pack of photographers. Every newspaper and magazine editor in South Korea (and the rest of Golf Nation, for that matter) wanted pictures of Michelle Wie— for her beauty, for her fashion, and most especially for her immaculate swing.
Yet for all the photos, few knew much about the young girl behind the celebrity. Most knew that she hailed from Hawaii and was the hottest new thing to hit golf since Tiger Woods. But she revealed little about herself in interviews with the media, other than the odd joke about school or a stray comment about a favorite movie. Her parents rarely spoke to the media at all, so they were no help in enlightening people about their daughter.
Most fans didn’t know whether she had a boyfriend (no), a pet (no), or a sibling (no). They didn’t know what her parents did for a living. (Dad was a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Hawaii; Mom was a real estate agent in Honolulu.) They didn’t know that she was going to a high school in Honolulu whose graduates included Steve Case, cofounder of AOL, and Barack Obama, then a first- term U.S. senator from Illinois who would go on to bigger things. The one thing everyone did know, the one thing no one could forget, was her golf swing.
Starting at the bottom, the swing began with feet large enough to require men’s size 111⁄2 shoes. Those feet gave her such a solid base and balance that she could stand on halfdomed medicine balls in her socks, swing an iron, and hit a golf ball as straight and far as if she were standing in her spikes on the ground. Most golfers, male and female, roll on their feet as they power through the swing. If you focused on Michelle’s feet as she swung, you got no hint that she was doing anything but standing still.
Her legs were long— she was already 6'1", at age 16— and her thighs strong as stone pillars, but there wasn’t a trace of gawkiness or awkwardness in her gait. In a full swing, her torso twisted and turned as if on a swivel, and her shoulders rotated around her spine like a propeller. Her long arms effortlessly carried her hands to the top of her backswing, then through the ball and all the way over her left shoulder in a fluid pendulum motion. Those hands were soft and feminine, yet strong enough to whip a club around her body like a light saber. A normal adult man’s grip strength— roughly 80 pounds— diminishes to 45 or even 40 at the apex of a golf swing. Wie’s grip strength was 120 pounds, double that of a normal grown woman and equivalent to that of a full- time male carpenter.
The combination of Michelle’s size, flexibility, and strength gave her enough torque to bend a golf club into a blur. The result: shocking power.
At her appearance on David Letterman’s show the year before, when she was 15, he asked her how far she could drive the ball from the tee. Michelle answered with a shrug: “About 300, maybe 320.” Letterman buckled over in laughter. The crowd burst into cheers. Wie smiled and laughed, too, but seemed a little perplexed at their response: to her, it was just something that came naturally. To everyone else, it was . . . impossible. And though everything about her body screamed power, everything about her soft and delicate face whispered fragility. Her smile came easily (at least it did back then, when everything was going well), never coming across as forced or false. Her laugh was like a soft giggle, a near hiccup. She never seemed hurried. She hid the power as well as she hid her emotions. And yet, even at 16, she exuded femininity, almost without knowing she had it.
“Physically,” said friend and LPGA veteran Christina Kim, “she’s got the body of a rockin’ 25- year- old. She’s a hot chick.” Michelle Wie looked blissfully unaware of the pressure she faced and the history she was making. Was she simply too young to understand? She answered that every time she arrived at a tee and swung a club. Her jaw jutted, her mouth disappeared, her eyes narrowed in certainty, even coldness.
Yes, Michelle Wie knew exactly what she was doing.
So Wie heard the racket of the cameras and even noticed the cars idling on the highway so that their drivers could catch a glimpse, yet she tuned it out in the same way she had tuned out the occasional cell phone chatter, the planes flying low overhead, and even the shouts of “Hot body!” from men in the crowd. It was the same way she tuned out the skeptics, the women golfers back in America who resented her, the male golfers who felt she had no business playing in a men’s field, the countless bloggers who called her spoiled and overrated, and just about everyone who didn’t understand how she could possibly be worth so many millions of dollars before she was old enough to vote.
Wie parred 14, then hit a perfect drive to the corner of the dogleg left on the par- 4 15th. More vehicles stopped along the highway; people got out of their cars to watch. On the way to her ball, Michelle saw the growing lineup of vehicles and laughed. Then she lofted a wedge shot that floated over a bunker and came to rest pin high, 7 feet from the cup. By now cars on the other side of the highway were stopping and people were getting out to follow the action. Some even stood on hoods. Wie’s caddy, Greg Johnston, shook his head.
Wie made her 7- footer for birdie and accepted cheers from the gallery— and the motorists— with a smile and a little wave. She could afford to smile. At 6 under par for the tournament with three holes left to play, she was going to make the cut with room to spare. A bogey on 16 made little difference. Wie made her final par putt on 18 to complete a round of 69, 3 under for the day, and a two- round total of 139. The cut was 144. Michelle’s parents did something as rare for them as B.J. sitting down on a golf course: they embraced in public. Usually B.J. and his wife, Bo, walked separately during Michelle’s rounds. Now they were hugging. Bo whipped out a camera and started snapping pictures of everything, everyone, the whole happy scene. B.J. accepted handshakes and backslaps from relatives and strangers alike. His daughter was tied for 17th after two rounds.
The least excited person in the immediate vicinity appeared to be Michelle Wie. She smiled. She waved briefly. Her caddy put an arm around her in a half hug, and Wie leaned in against him slightly in appreciation. She walked to the scorer’s tent, checked her card, signed it, and then made her way to the press room, signing autographs along the way. There she admitted, in Korean, to feeling “wonderful” and “really, really happy,” but immediately added, “The tournament’s not over yet.” The next day, Michelle spoke to a knot of reporters in the press room, this time in English. Outside, heavy rain washed out the day’s round; she would finish the rain- shortened 54- hole event on Sunday in a tie for 35th place. But that would seem immaterial, given the history she’d already made.
“I think winning the Masters would be amazing,” she said, unfolding big dreams, bigger than ever. “The craziest thing would be winning Player of the Year on the PGA Tour. These are ridiculous things, but that’s what I’m here for, to do ridiculous things.”
Asked if she really felt she could do everything she said she wanted to, Michelle Wie didn’t hesitate:
“It’s not that difficult being me,” she had remarked on that rainy May Saturday in South Korea when somebody asked about all the pressure she was under. “I have a pretty good life. I wouldn’t change anything.”
But Michelle Wie’s golf life was about to change dramatically. In the six months to come, her dream of doing “ridiculous things” would give way to the reality of a career spiraling downward and out of control. Top 5 finishes in women’s majors would give way to missed cuts and last- place horror stories. A surfeit of options about where to play next week would give way to fears about finding places to play next year.
And in the two years to come, leading up to the end of 2008, some of the same fans and media who’d had no doubt about her history- making future would begin to wonder if she had any golf future at all.
At this turning point in May 2006, as she made the cut in a men’s professional golf tournament in South Korea, Michelle Wie made a case that someday— someday soon— she could compete on the PGA Tour. Two years later there was serious doubt whether she would qualify for the LPGA Tour.
What had gone wrong?
What happened to the “Next Tiger Woods”?
Would the teenage girl who gave us the opening chapters of one of the most thrilling stories in sports history give way to a young adult who would write a comeback story for the ages?
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Eric Adelson first interviewed Michelle Wie when she was 10 years old for a story in ESPN The Magazine. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University’s School of Journalism, he lives with his family in Orlando, Florida.
From the Hardcover edition.
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