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The Education Of Michelle Wie

The Stanford degree she'll receive in June may not be a ticket to LPGA success, but the college experience has given her a perspective tour riches can't buy

March 19, 2012

On A crisp late February afternoon, Michelle Wie walks into one of her favorite hangouts on Stanford's sprawling campus. It's the unpretentious CoHo Coffee House, bustling with students studying, chatting, snacking. She wears blue jeans and a thick scarf and carries a lime-green backpack that nearly matches the colored streaks in her ponytail. She seamlessly blends into the scene, even at 6 feet tall.

Wie spends more than 45 minutes at a table and only one person--holding a small sign and awkwardly soliciting a charitable donation, not an autograph--approaches. (The woman had no earthly idea Wie is rich and famous).

This is one of many reasons Wie savored her life the past 4.5 years. She did not wander in public as Michelle Wie, Onetime Phenom Who Dared to Play in PGA Tour Events. She was simply another Stanford student, making friends and hanging out with people her own age--saddled with the same academic angst, trying to navigate the same path to graduation.

"It's nice having people not judge you by the face," Wie says of blending into the crowd on campus. "My friends here don't know anything about golf, so it's nice to get to know people by actually getting to know them--not them knowing your bio straight off the bat and kind of judging you."

She didn't really take the same path as her classmates, in many ways, because she's still Michelle Wie. Nothing about the first 22-plus years of her life smacks of normalcy, from her early golf feats and majestic swing to her widely debated decisions to compete against men and eventually enroll at Stanford.

Now, as spring arrives and the LPGA's first major championship nears, here's one fact beyond debate: Wie soon will become a college graduate, an extraordinary accomplishment for a golfer who played at least 19 professional tournaments each of the past three years. She attended her last classes last week and will complete her last final exam this week, before traveling to Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the Kraft Nabisco Championship starting March 29.

This milestone--finishing her studies (with a major in communications) and embarking on the next phase of her career--stirs many emotions in Wie. She will move with her parents, B.J. and Bo, to the house she bought last summer in Jupiter, Fla. She plans to play at the Bear's Club, seek putting and painting tips from Luke Donald and immerse herself in the itinerant world of a tour pro. It is a striking contrast to the communal nature of college, where she routinely flocked with friends to Stanford football, basketball and volleyball games.

"I'm really excited to graduate and get to the next part of my life, where I can focus on golf and have more time to do other things," Wie says. "But I'm also sad because it's been the best 4 years of my life. There's really no other experience in life like college, where you're all put into this little bubble and you all grow together."

Wie relished the growth, from struggling through an engineering class on "Nanotechnology" to thoroughly enjoying a class on "Virtual Reality." She lived in on-campus dormitories for four of the five years, learned to become more self-sufficient and no longer fears she will act like a needy high-school kid in her 30s and 40s, dependent on her doting parents.

That counts as one of the most significant ways her time at Stanford shaped Wie, to hear her tell it: her relationship with her parents. They moved to Northern California when Wie arrived at Stanford, taking the concept of hovering parents to another level and prompting rampant skepticism and snickering in golf circles.

Michelle Wie in college
Ahead of her transformative years at Stanford, Wie was a student at Punahou School in Hawaii. Photo by J.D. Cuban.

Wie insists she's fine with their involvement, saying they gave her space in school and help manage her career. And now, after realizing she could join her friends on Senior Pub Night and still show up at 9 a.m. sharp for practice the next day, they trust her judgment--a far cry from her freshman year, when they called her dorm room practically every night. (B.J. talked to Golf World for 20 minutes by phone but declined to be quoted in this story.)

Asked how the college experience changed her, Wie steers the answer toward her relationship with Mom and Dad.

"I'm a completely different person," she says. "I feel like I'm a lot more mature. ... In college, you have to fend for yourself. That's what I learned, just taking care of myself without having to rely on my parents so much. I feel like we've become more partners in our golf, our business, everything.

"They respect what I say. Not that they didn't before, but when you're kind of little and haven't really done anything by yourself, they obviously don't listen to you as much. They kind of want to baby you and protect you. I feel like we have a lot more respect in our relationship. They trust me more."

Christina Kim met Wie at the Kraft Nabisco in 2003, when Wie was 13 and socially awkward (like most 13-year-olds). Nine years later, on the first weekend in March, Kim finds herself returning to her native Northern California to hang out with Wie at Stanford.

Kim, not exactly a conformist, marvels at the way her good friend "spread her wings" in college, becoming more comfortable with expressing herself. "She's this little Bohemian," Kim says proudly.

Take her hair. Wie added pink and purple streaks in November, and it quickly morphed into a near-monthly series. Red, green, imitation flames--Kim sees this as a sign of Wie's liberation, her interest in carving out her own place.

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