Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie have had their share of critics over the years, and while the 14-time and first-time major champions may deal with them in sharply different ways publicly, both use the negative energy to fan their competitive flames.
Woods, according to his caddie Joe LaCava, uses the ill will he engendered during his self-induced fall from grace after his personal life went very public in 2009 to inspire him.
"Tiger loves the haters," LaCava recently told the New Haven Independent about his employer, whose reputation for blowing off autograph-seekers and reporters has ticked off fans and media types like Rick Reilly. "It just gives him more fire."
Wie, who derives similar incentive from those who have blasted her for failing to live up to the enormous hype that surrounded her as a teenage prodigy, publicly refuses to do anything but blow kisses at those who have doubted her.
As with Woods’ tale, even casual golf fans know the story of Wie, who "finally" won her first major title on Sunday. The lanky Hawaiian who crushed the ball with a long, fluid golf swing exploded into the national consciousness as a pre-teen, made the cut at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open at age 13, and ascended to No. 3 in the world rankings at 16.
She then accepted sponsors’ exemptions to PGA Tour events, engendering resentment among LPGA players and fans. Her parents’ helicoptering style came under constant attack as Wie dealt with injuries to her wrist, back, and ankle.
Winning two events, the 2009 Lorena Ochoa Invitational and 2010 Canadian Women’s Open did not stop the sniping, as her decision to finish college while playing golf part-time fueled the ire of critics, who wondered about her commitment to the game during her five years at Stanford.
Then there was the awful 2013 season, during which Wie had just four top-10 finishes in 26 events, and which followed an equally lackluster 2012 that saw her miss 10 of 23 starts. It seemed that the former child star, who was ridiculed for deploying an unorthodox putting stance was washed up by the age of 23.
After taking a break from golf following last season, Wie returned to the course with renewed energy and determination.
"I am definitely happy because I am playing well but I definitely do think that I’m enjoying being out there," Wie said during a conference call a day after notching her LPGA Lotte Championship victory in April in her native Hawaii -- her first win since 2010. "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."
While contending that golf had always been fun, despite the bashing she has taken, Wie conceded she had relaxed more as she had matured.
"I think I’m being more comfortable being a golfer and ... being who I am," 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."
Wie also acknowledged that center stage has not always been the most comfortable place for her, but that she was over that part of her life.
"I’m past the awkward middle-school, high-school phase," she said, "and I’m just a lot more comfortable with who I am."
Wie's unorthodox putting stance, Photo credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Wie claims that the negativity hovering over her until recently made her stronger and that she was thankful for the years of derision 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.
"I’ve been through a lot of things, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of life experiences," Wie said during the April teleconference. "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," said Wie, who added that "without the downs, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am today."
Wie reiterated those sentiments Sunday after winning her first major title, the U.S. Women’s Open, at Pinehurst.
"Just everything kind of what I’ve been through, all the ups and downs," Wie said, "this is definitely -- it’s all worth it."
Certainly, one can’t argue with the on-course results. In addition to the two Ws this season, Wie has seven additional top-10 finishes in 13 starts. That includes coming in a close second to Lexi Thompson at the season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April.
Michelle Wie finally captures her first major
Wie has been around the rodeo that is professional golf for more than half her life and is finally living up to the massive hype that preceded her turning pro as a teenager.
Such outcomes did not come out of thin air, as her stats prove. Several areas of Wie’s game have improved, including scoring average (she’s No. 1 on tour, compared to 36th in 2013) and greens in regulation (from 32nd to third) but what really stands out is her acumen on the greens. Thanks to the "tabletop" putting stance, which she adopted to catcalls that have since turned to kudos, Wie has gone from 53rd last year in putting average to 36th this year and 25th to third in putts per green.
Now, as Wie cedes the spotlight back to Woods, who will make his long-awaited return at this week’s Quicken Loans National following back surgery in March, the golf world turns its attention to the former world No. 1. Should he struggle in his comeback, he will likely receive some leeway from observers willing to give him time to regain his competitive edge after dealing with the latest in an unending series of health issues.
If he struggles for long and his game does not improve from his terrible early season that included his first-ever 54-hole missed cut, however, it may not be long before the boo-birds are in full throat again, chirping about how Woods will never break Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major titles and finding other ways to heckle the winner of 79 PGA Tour events.
LaCava, for one, won’t be worried about his boss’ reaction to such judgments.
While recognizing why some may think poorly of Woods after his serial philandering went viral (we’re looking at you, Reilly), the caddie was unbothered.
"If people knew who he really was," LaCava told the Connecticut publication, "no one would hate him."