August 27, 2009

Hello, Goodbye

Between Michelle Wie making her debut and Juli Inkster playing her finale, the Solheim Cup was an event that bridged generations

The Solheim Cup revealed a more personable side of Michelle Wie.

The Solheim Cup revealed a more personable side of Michelle Wie.

Juli Inkster was back at home this week in Los Altos, Ca., coming down from her eighth and final Solheim Cup as a player by getting ready to take her youngest daughter to college. When I reached her on Wednesday, she was doing the wash.

Michelle Wie, a sophomore at Stanford, was in Portland trying to build off the momentum of leading Inkster's final team to a four-point victory in her maiden Solheim Cup. She'll return to Palo Alto after this week's Safeway Classic and a full month of competitive golf.

What Inkster saw in Michelle she also sees in daughter Hayley. They left on Friday for Loyola Marymount while Wie morphed back into her role as one of the most visible female athletes in the world. The 19-year-old who toured Nike Headquarters with a hero's welcome on Tuesday, and who will be pulled back into a world where she's accompanied by a team of two parents, a swing coach, and a sports management company, grinding to win her first professional event.

This was not the loose and fun-loving Michelle Wie that made such a favorable impression behind the scenes at Rich Harvest Farms and on the course with a 3-0-1 record. "She's a college student, that's exactly what she is," Inkster said. "She enjoys dancing, the computer, hanging out with the girls. She loves fashion, designing her own clothes. I learned a lot about Michelle in a different light."

As the youngest and the oldest players on Team U.S.A., the two captain's picks by Beth Daniel, Inkster and Wie became the mix masters of an energy level that came through TV screens and poured out in the team room and on the putting green at night after dinner. Instead of putting practice, they became jam sessions, with the younger players bringing out their computers and breaking out their moves. "Juli was like the rest of us," Pressel said. "We were supposed to be practicing, but we were really dancing."

Pressel, 21, also noted the emotional speech Inkster gave at the beginning of the week. "There's so much to learn being around Juli, how at her age how seriously she still takes it, how badly she wants it, not just in the Solheim, but every week, she's practicing really, really hard," Pressel said after a week in which she went 2-0-1. "I don't know when I'm her age I'll have same drive and desire. It's always hard to step away from the sport, but you can tell she wants it."

Inkster's career has ranged from classic rock and disco to hip-hop and rap, from winning her first of three straight U.S. Amateur titles in 1980 to her last half Solheim Cup point in 2009 -- and it was a big one, a momentum-turner, coming from three down with a classic back-nine Inkster charge of three straight birdies. Always demonstrative on the course, she had reason to dance again, just as she had done all week behind the scenes. Fittingly, the team's theme song turned out to be the raunchy "Let Me See Your Hips Swing," by Savage and Soulja Boy. It's nothing that Inkster hasn't heard as the mother of a teenage daughter.

What was amazing about Daniel's team is that the energy level never subsided. "Those kids, they never stop," Inkster said. "If they're not playing golf, they're listening to music or playing ping pong, or just shooting the breeze. Of course it helps when you're 19, 21, 22."

Not sure how the team chemistry would work, Daniel recalled two examples of Inkster setting a tone. The first was at 5:45 in the morning on the Tuesday after the Women's British Open, when Daniel brought the team together for its first gathering at Rich Harvest Farms. Still jet-lagged, Inkster walked out onto the putting green in the dark and fog with three balls. By 6 a.m., there were three other players on the green.

The second was the overall way that Inkster related to the kids, tried to pass down any knowledge she could about match play, and came to learn how proud the younger generation was to represent its country. Inkster may not do face paint, but she does wear her nation's colors proudly. Appropriately, she also became the all-time leader in Solheim Cup points.

"I always knew she had the grit, and knew how competitive she was, but I loved the way Juli interacted with all these young players," Daniel said. "That's something she shied away from in past. This team was so young, she kind of had to do it, but they all respect her so much. I told her, 'This may be the greatest tribute of her career, how much these young kids respect you.' ''

The young kids on Daniel's team also learned to respect Wie, and not just for her talent: Pressel, one of her early critics, had done a180 before the team first got together at Rich Harvest Farms last month. "Instead of the stoic side that you see on a week-to-week basis, we saw her interact with her peers," Pressel said. "I had seen that side of her beforehand, but a lot of girls hadn't and they got to know her well. She's certainly different without her parents there. We were giving her a hard time, saying, 'Now when we're out on tour at lunch, you have to sit with us, too."

Without her shield, Wie was a different person, and a different golfer – fist-pumping, slapping her leg, bumping fists, unafraid, as Pressel alluded, to show her true self. Thanks to Dave Stockton, she was even making putts, too. When the ball goes in the hole, it makes it easier to move those hips.

"I think it was first time she could go out there, let her hair hang down, let it all go," Inkster said. "Her parents were there on and off and they did a great job just trying to stay away, letting this be Michelle's week. From Michelle's standpoint, it was all about the team, never about her."

If there's a lesson here, it comes on the day when Juli Inkster drives Hayley to Loyola Marymount. It's that Bo and B.J. Wie, along with the good folks at IMG, need to let more of that come out. Michelle needs to be up on the dance floor, like she was Sunday night with Hayley Inkster, two 19-year-old kids being kids. At some point, you just have to let them go.