Michelle L. Smith

Freelance Writer, Novelist, Humorist

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Michelle Wie Doesn’t Play with Dolls. Spirit of Aloha, September/October 2003

Everybody asks: How does a giddy teenager, 13 years old, who enjoys Disney cartoons, hit a golf ball 320 yards? How did she become, in June, the youngest champion of the National Women’s Public Links Championship?

That’s nothing. At the age of 4, Michelle Wie was driving the ball 100 yards. This was how old she was when her parents, who happened to be golfers, of course, gave her a set of junior clubs and took her to the golf course. Her junior set had a driver, a 5-iron, a 7-iron and a putter. “The first club she hit was the driver. I mean, from the beginning she chose the driver and she tried to hit the ball really hard,” says her father and sometimes caddy, B.J. Wie, a professor at the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawai’i.

Fast forward: Michelle Wie is the youngest qualifier—age 12—for an LPGA tournament. She is the youngest Monday qualifier—age 10—for a USGA event, the National Women’s Public Links Championship. She is the first female and youngest qualifier—age 11—for the Hawai’i State Amateur Match Play Championship (Manoa Cup). She is the youngest player—age 13—to make the cut at the Hawai’i Pearl Open, which is a men’s professional event. What’s going on here?

Is it the swing? Is it the fast hip rotation? Is it Tiger Woods? Michelle’s father carries a picture of Tiger’s swing in his wallet. At home there are images of Tiger plastered on walls. Her father believes Michelle has very fast hip rotation, similar to Tiger. “Her swing,” he says (and he is the spokesman for Michelle at this stage of her career), “has been molded to be like Tiger’s.” He has purchased special video equipment to analyze his daughter’s form. “I can compare every shot from her swing sequence, every movement, and I can then compare everything about the swing from different angles.”

In January, trying to qualify for the Sony Open in Honolulu, she took on the men. And she beat quite a few of them although she didn’t qualify. In March Michelle tied for ninth place at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA tour’s first major of the year. In June she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open.

Michelle once joined a boy’s baseball team. Her parents also encouraged her in swimming, gymnastics, ballet, tennis and piano. About tennis her father says that she had a good stroke, but she wasn’t a fast runner. At the age of 7 she turned her attention seriously to golf.

Michelle is six feet tall, has long arms, powerful hip musculature, and superb flexibility. “She knows how to generate and release speed at the right moment, something people spend years trying to figure out,” says Lori Planos, vice-president of Hawai’i State Junior Golf Association (HSJGA) and winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links championship when she was 18 and 19 years old.

Michelle was 9 when she joined the O’ahu Junior Golf Association. She then won five out of seven tournaments.

Michelle was 10 when she joined HSJGA. The cofounder, Mary Bea Porter-King, a USGA executive committee member who toured with the LPGA for 25 years, continues to monitor Michelle’s golf progress. “Until you compete in an uncomfortable environment, you’ll never grow as a player,” she says. “You find out what your game is all about in competition. And that’s exactly what Michelle has done.”

Some people think Michelle has outgrown competition in Hawai’i. Observers feel that with her special and highly advanced skills she has to create her own competitive arena. At the age of 13 she probably needs alternative tournaments to hone her skills. “She’s trying to find competition at her level,” says Planos. “She gets invitations to play in events that most kids wouldn’t think about playing. But if you’re building confidence, you want to put yourself in the cooker to win. That’s harder than playing where you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Playing difficult courses is one key to Michelle’s success. “You have to play different, hard courses,” says Michelle’s father. “That has dramatically helped with her game.” Early on she discovered the challenge of Kapalua on Maui’s west side, where undulating terrain and a high elevation provide a special challenge.

Some people think Michelle is losing her childhood. But her father feels that she only looks like an adult when she’s on the golf course. “Outside of golf she’s just a child,” he says. Both parents are diligent in efforts to keep her grounded. “There’s no reason to miss your childhood,” says Planos, “And there’s no reason to miss college growth time and finding yourself, because you won’t ever have it again.

Michelle often does her homework in the back seat of her parents’ car on the way to practice sessions. Her academic strengths are math, English and science. Soon she will be a ninth-grader at Punahou School.

Golf is not Michelle’s primary career goal. Isn’t this hard to believe? If she decides not to turn professional, it is fine with her parents. “She could do well in business finance, because she has a good understanding of economics,” says her father. He envisions Michelle earning a professional degree at Stanford University (where, coincidentally, Tiger Woods went to school).

Here is a typical Michelle week: Meet parents after school and head for Olomana Golf Links, a public course on the windward side of O’ahu. Train at Olomana Monday through Thursday. Practice at Pearl Country Club 20 minutes from Waikiki on Fridays. Practice at these courses until seven o’clock. Do homework in car driving home to dinner. Every Saturday spend two hours with physical therapist Milton Uchida doing fitness routines specially developed to help her prevent injury, but which have evidently added to her flexibility, stamina and distance off the tee. After therapy drive to Ko ‘Olina Golf Club on O’ahu’s sunny southwest tip for a seven-hour practice session. On Sunday, after attending services at Holy Trinity Church in Hawai’i Kai with family, return to Ko ‘Olina for another long practice session. Limited time with friends at the movies. Limited time at cosmetics counters at Kahala Mall.

Let’s talk about the future. “The LPGA Tour is not as glamorous as you might expect,” says Michelle’s father. “It’s like a very unstable occupation. Unless you’re a top player, every week is a layoff when you don’t make the cut.” Still B.J. Wie is optimistic that his daughter’s ability to attract major sponsors will help increase LPGA purse money, which he estimates is now one-quarter of the men’s tour. “She has to be really good,” he says, “But I think she has the potential.”

Michelle’s ultimate goal is an invitation to play the Masters. Last summer she played at the Bay Mills Open Players’ Championship with the men’s Canadian tour.

Everybody agrees: Michelle is good for golf. She’s already helped other junior golfers raise the bar, says Planos. She could be the person to break the so-called gender barrier, observes Porter-King. “The times women’s golf has grown is when we’ve had a Nancy Lopez, or an Annika Sorenstam. If Michelle is the next one to do that, hooray for her. Because it’s just better for golf all around. It’s better for everyone.”

Michelle likes to cuddle up with her mom and dad at night to sleep.

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