The Education Of Michelle Wie
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 4½ 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.
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.
Take the dog. Wie bought Lola, a Pomeranian, as a puppy two years ago and quickly grew attached. Her parents usually take care of Lola at home (Stanford doesn't allow pets in campus housing), but Wie brings the dog on most trips and breaks into a wide smile at any mention of her.
Or take the painting. Wie loves water color and black-and-white drawings and really does hope to corner Donald, an art major at Northwestern, and pick his brain. She also became more interested in sewing and cooking at Stanford.
This artistic bent surfaced when Wie and several friends from her freshman dormitory attended the Stanford-Notre Dame football game in November. Wie bought plain white hats, had them embroidered with "Stanford," made the school's "S" out of red glitter and passed out the hats to her friends. They had a blast.
One of those friends, Casandra Espinoza, calls Wie one of the most creative people she met in school. "At the end of the day, she's just our friend," Espinoza says. "I think the Stanford experience gave her a chance to just be Michelle. She has another life, but she has friends here who would be her friends either way."
Wie mostly kept her two lives separate, usually attending classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and practicing golf on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She prefers this sort of structured schedule, dating to a youth filled not only with golf and school but also tennis, baseball, swimming and ballet.
She typically skipped the spring quarter to focus on playing LPGA tournaments, orginally expecting to take six years to graduate. Then she realized many of her friends were graduating in four years and leaving Stanford last summer. Wie accelerated her pace, stayed in school for the 2011 spring quarter and took a full class load in the fall and again this winter.
Inevitably, her two worlds intersected. Sometimes, during tournaments in distant lands, Wie awoke at 3 a.m. to take a midterm. She often brought her laptop on trips and wrote papers late at night. The perpetual balancing act and travel schedule occasionally left her exhausted, but she wanted a Stanford degree.
Beyond the academic prestige, Wie embraced the social life. She enjoys being part of a large group, whether it's joining Espinoza and other friends in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl or joining Kim and other golfers for the Solheim Cup. She claims she will even miss the stress of final exams because students often gathered to study and commiserate together.
Wie lifting the CN Canadian Women's Open trophy in 2010--just moments after a bubbly bath from Christina Kim at St. Charles CC in Winnipeg. Photos by Darren Carroll/Getty.
Wie's Stanford years have made her realize she loves meeting new people, eating new foods, trying new things. Those discoveries might not help win more tournaments, but they matter to her. "I didn't go into college thinking, 'Is this going to help my game or not help my game?' " she says. "It's just something I needed as a person. ... Now that I'm going to be done, I'm more ready to fully commit to golf."
So after 4.5 years in college, she has a Stanford degree, friends for life, a deep reservoir of good memories, newfound respect from her parents, colorful hair and a cute dog.
What to make of Michelle Wie, the golfer?
She collected two LPGA wins during her college years, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November 2009 and the CN Canadian Women's Open in August 2010. Wie finished in the top 20 on the money list in each of her first three years as an LPGA member, showing impressive steadiness.
Then again, she didn't win last year (though she posted seven top-10s), and she struggled in her first two starts this season (T-38 in Thailand and 59th in Singapore). She played much better in majors as a 15- and 16-year-old (five top-fives) than she did the past three years (one top-10).
Wie offers no regrets about her forays onto the PGA Tour, where she made eight starts as a teenager (plus one on the Nationwide Tour), and she still dreams about playing in the Masters. But she repeatedly insists her prevailing ambition is to reach No. 1 in the women's world rankings. She is currently 20th.
"Given her physical ability, she still has the potential to be very good," says Kay Cockerill, the longtime tour pro and current Golf Channel commentator. "I just don't know how strong she is mentally or how passionately she wants to play the game. Does she want to get that little ball in the hole faster than anybody else, more than anybody else? That super-driven mentality is what you need, and Yani [Tseng] has it right now. I wonder if Michelle will ever have that.
"You can kind of look at her career and think it's maybe a clean slate--now her real pro career begins," says Cockerill. "At the same time, she's an old 22, with some positive experience and a lot of negative experience. She has a lot of mental baggage. I don't doubt she can get there [to No. 1], but I think it's going to be a challenge."
Cockerill saw Wie's passion once, during the 2009 Solheim Cup. Beth Daniel made Wie a captain's pick, and she responded by going 3-0-1 to help the U.S. win. She was emotional, engaged, enthusiastic and played brilliantly. "She was the unbeatable Michelle Wie," Cockerill says, "and we haven't seen too much of that."
David Leadbetter, her longtime swing coach, saw the burning drive between ages 15 and 18, when Wie repeatedly climbed into contention at LPGA majors. That drive landed on hold, in a way, during her time at Stanford. "I think the next two years will be very telling, to see how bad Michelle wants it," Leadbetter says. "She really enjoys the competition, and she enjoys winning. ... I can't be 100 percent positive, but I believe the burning drive is in there somewhere. She just has to pluck it out."
The quest will include her everpresent parents. They shadowed Wie during her regular practice sessions in Northern California, traipsing along in a golf cart, and they travel with her to every LPGA event. The habit drew not-so-muffled criticism over the years, and it seems their role will not subside once Wie is a college graduate.
B.J. comes across as calm and rational, but that's not always the image Bo projects. She's a onetime amateur champion in South Korea, openly emotional when watching her daughter play. Observers describe her as living and dying with every shot as she follows Michelle at tournaments, screaming at times. There are two ways to view this. On one hand, Wie's parents allowed Michelle some independence at Stanford. Then again, they lived in Palo Alto and now will join her in Jupiter.
"They've played such a key role in her golf to this point, I can't see them exiting the scene," Leadbetter says. "The good thing now is, they give her space. They know she doesn't need the babysitting she maybe did at 15 or 16."
Wie envisions a day in the not-too-distant future, maybe three or four years out, when her parents stop traveling with her. That day also isn't here yet, and she insists it's her call.
"There obviously will be a point in my life where I don't need them, but right now I still feel like I need their guidance and help in my golf game," Wie says. "They've seen me play since I was 4, so they know things other people can't see. ... They'll always be very involved. That's just the relationship we have. Their involvement is going to be a little bit less and less, but I still feel very comfortable having them with me [on trips]. I don't feel like it's a burden. They help me a lot."
The equation ultimately comes back to how Wie performs inside the ropes. She's clearly a creative person, and Cockerill hopes to see that creativity in her game--rather than remain robotic around the greens. Wie has relentlessly tinkered with her putting the past few years, from trying a long putter to frequently changing grips. Leadbetter, who describes her as a very good putter earlier in her career, says she became "too mechanical."
Wie, to her credit, shows little interest in living off her vapor trail of hype. As she sits in CoHo Coffee House (where caricatures of Stanford alums on the wall range from Tiger Woods and Chelsea Clinton to Ted Koppel and Reese Witherspoon), she strikes a tone of unmistakable urgency.
"Right now, I feel like I need to prove to myself and other people that I can do great things," Wie says. "I want people to keep noticing me for what I am doing, not what I have done."
She's fiercely proud, and understandably so, of what she will be doing June 17--returning to Stanford for commencement ceremonies. The question is, will she have the same fierce pride about what she does after that?