Michelle Wie concedes that playing and growing up in the public eye for the former pre-teen golf phenom was not always easy. But the 24-year-old, three-time LPGA Tour winner with a Stanford degree believes the criticism and negativity she labored under until just recently have only made her stronger.
Indeed, the victor of last week’s LPGA Lotte Championship actually professes to be thankful for the years of deprecation from many who complained about her unfulfilled expectations and the bitterness of others angry about the fame and fortune she gained before earning her rewards.
SB Nation Golf
SB Nation Golf
"I’ve been through a lot of things, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of life experiences," Wie said during a Sunday conference call with reporters following her two-shot, home-course victory over Angela Stanford in Hawaii a day earlier. "I’m just really grateful for everything that’s happened and ... all the ups and downs -- especially the downs -- have definitely made me who I am today.
"I am especially grateful for those ups," she said, adding that "without the downs, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am today."
Wie’s story is, by now, legend. The long-hitter from Hawaii burst onto the golf scene at a tender age and ascended to No. 3 in the world rankings at 16, by which time she had earned a half-dozen top-five finishes. What followed were sponsors’ exemptions on the PGA Tour, where Wie missed the cut at the Sony Open by one stroke but struggled in events that followed, which fostered antagonism among the ranks of the LPGA and fans. At the same time her parents’ seemingly stifling engineering of her career came under extensive examination, and amid it all, Wie suffered a broken wrist, a bulging disc in her back, and sprained her ankle.
Wie won her first tour event at the 2009 Lorena Ochoa Invitational and followed that up with No. 2 at the 2010 Canadian Women’s Open. Even so, her decision to finish college while playing golf part-time was fodder for critics, who wondered about her commitment to the game during her five years at Stanford.
A terrible 2013 season, in which Wie had just four top-10 finishes in 26 events, followed an equally lackluster 2012 that saw her miss 10 of 23 starts. But for the unconventional putting stance she added to her repertoire last year, Wie was little more than an afterthought on tour, a child star seemingly washed up at the age of 23.
Then, at the urging of her coach David Leadbetter, came a five-week break after a T11 finish at the season-ending CME Group Titleholders.
"I just had a really long year, 2013, and I just needed some time just to not play golf and get some ‘active rest’ because I did work out a lot, I did a lot of yoga, I hiked almost everyday," Wie said. "I really took those five weeks to really get my body back in shape. I just finally felt healthy, wasn’t really fighting any injuries, so really took the time to get stronger."
Thanks to her vacation from the course and a renewed focus on her fitness, Wie returned to competition with restored vigor and fervor and the type of unrestrained joy she exhibited during her triumphant 3-0-1 turn at the 2009 Solheim Cup.
"I am definitely happy because I am playing well but I definitely do think that I’m enjoying being out there," said Wie. "I’m definitely treating it a lot more like a game when I’m out there ... it’s not life or death out there and I’m trying to treat it not like that. I’m definitely having a lot more fun playing and hopefully its showing."
Michelle Wie does the Hula on No. 18 (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
While contending that golf had always been fun, Wie acknowledged that she has relaxed more as she has matured.
"I think I’m being more comfortable being a golfer and ... being who I am. I think I’m just becoming more comfortable with who I am and I think that’s what’s resonating to just having more fun out there," she said. "Golf has always been something that I love to do and I feel so lucky to do what I do for a living."
Admitting that being on center stage "when you’re kind of growing up and you’re going through everything" was difficult, Wie said that part of her life was behind her.
"I’m past the awkward middle-school, high-school phase," she said, "and I’m just a lot more comfortable with who I am."
Matt Kuchar holes out to win
Matt Kuchar started the day four strokes off the lead, but a scorching front nine and the shot of the day at No. 18 allowed him to walk away with a win.
The results speak for themselves. There was last week’s win -- her first in almost four years and the first on U.S. soil, before a Wie-friendly crowd on her home course, Oahu’s Ko Olina Golf Club.
"So many family and friends [said], 'I waited 12 years for this.’ And I was like, 'I know! Me, too!'" Wie said, laughing at the memory of her first LPGA event. "It's crazy how long it took. The last couple of years, I ... put so much pressure on myself to win ... This week I said, `I'm just going to go out there and put no expectations on myself and have fun.’ And I really think I did that."
In addition to the victory, Wie owns three other top-10s in seven starts in 2014, including coming in second to Lexi Thompson two weeks ago at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. With such outcomes, it’s hardly surprising that several aspects of her game have improved, from hitting greens in regulation (first so far this year, compared with 69th in 2012), putting average (70th, after adopting the "tabletop" stance, up from 119th), and scoring average (first/92nd).
While winning may solve many woes (Wie also leads the money list, having banked $615,550), the Comeback Kid insists her current success is just a byproduct of her long-term goal.
"A lot of times I think too far ahead or try to plan out everything and I’m just trying to take it day by day, shot by shot," she said. "Just really stay in the present and do the best I can at that moment ... If I do that, the rest is going to take care of itself."