Monday, April 21, 2014

Michelle Wie’s Long Winding Road

Michelle Wie, the 24 year old American daughter of Korean immigrants, had the tragedy of the Korean ferry Sewol very much on her mind Saturday, as she won her first ever LPGA golf event on U.S. soil. Wie, backed by a large, friendly crowd, won in her Hawaii home, as Korea mourned the ferry sinking with 302 dead or missing, most of whom could have been saved. Nearly 3/4ths of the passengers were 16- and 17-year-olds from suburbian Seoul’s Danwon High School.

Wie paid tribute to the lost Koreans with a black ribbon pinned to her golf cap, and after winning, saying she sent out “good thoughts and prayers and to all the family in Korea right now. It's very unfortunate."

But fortune finally did smile on Wie, after a 79-event winless drought going back to 2010.

Wie’s first tournament as an LPGA member was the season-opening SBS Open at Oahu’s Turtle Bay in February 2009, a predecessor event to the Oahu Lotte Championship she has just won. Wie in 2009 held a three-stroke lead with eight holes remaining, but ended up losing by three to Angela Stanford, the same woman she beat by two strokes Saturday, after starting four behind Stanford.

In August 2009, Wie distinguished herself in the team-America Solheim Cup competition against Europe, going 3-0-1. Then in November, she won her first professional tournament, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico, ending an 80-match professional tournament drought. She won again in August 2010, the the CN Canadian Women's Open, her last victory before the 79-tourney drought that ended Saturday.

Wie’s mother was a Korean women’s amateur golf champion and a Miss Korea pageant contestant, and her father a University of Hawaii professor. Wie began golfing at age 4.  She enjoyed much early success before turning pro in 2005, winning in 2003 at age 13 the Women's Amateur Public Links tournament, becoming the youngest person ever, male or female, to win a USGA adult event. Wie's 6-foot height and her 300 yard drives made her an international childhood sensation, as did her efforts to enter male PGA events.

2006-08 were bad years for Wie. She injured her wrists in 2006 and broke three bones in her left wrist in a 2007 fall. “Golf Channel’s” Randell Mell reports golf swing coach David Leadbetter saying people never understood how the injuries Wie endured through the years hurt her game. The injuries changed her swing, which Leadbetter then had to rebuild.

Mell wrote:
“I don’t think there’s been enough said about how many injuries she’s had and how they hurt her golf swing,” said four-time major championship winner Meg Mallon, who captained Wie in the 2013 Solheim Cup. “She had to revamp her swing because she couldn’t bend her wrists very much.”
there were emotional injuries, too. Wie, her parents and her managers made mistakes. There was disrespect withdrawing from Annika Sorenstam’s tournament in the middle of a round in 2007, with Wie citing injury when it appeared she was going to fail to shoot better than 88, a high score that would have disqualified her from playing in LPGA events for a year. The next day, she was seen hitting balls.
After 2010, Wie endured her second long victory drought: 2011-13. Two years ago, in 2012, the blogger at “autographs for sale,” who had dropped the price of his Wie autographs by 50% and predicted the possibility of no sales, wrote that Wie’s
LPGA career to date has been profoundly disappointing. Even worse, it seems like her game is declining. Wie’s 2011 season was worse than 2009 or 2010, and she’s gotten off to a horrendous start in 2012, badly missing the cut at the last 2 events. . . Wie may eventually be remembered as the most hyped, least accomplished player in LPGA history.
Wie’s Stanford education may also have been a distraction. She attended Stanford for five years, 2007-12, going only to the Fall and Winter quarters, and golfing through the Spring and Summer. Leadbetter said that after graduating from Stanford, Wie was expected to elevate her game with her focus no longer divided. Instead, she slumped in 2012, missing the cut 10 times in the 16 events where there were cuts, missing five cuts in a row.

According to Mell:
Wie said . . . her frustration mounted seeing no rewards for all the hard work she was putting into her game. There was no fun in that. “It was sad,” Leadbetter said. “She was working hard, putting in more hours on the range, and nothing was happening. She was desperately trying to make something happen. She was forcing things. Once you start losing confidence, it’s hard.”
Leadbetter said he saw the frustrations choking Wie’s love of the game. While Wie’s game showed signs of rebounding in 2013, Leadbetter sensed a weariness in her. At year’s end, he told her to take five weeks off without touching a club. . . When she returned to Florida to see Leadbetter for a preseason boot camp before starting this year, she was revitalized. They picked up with changes that were working late in the ’13 season.
Now, back on top after a decade of trials, Wie is first in LPGA money winnings ($616,555), first in scoring (69.57), first in hitting greens in regulation (81%) and first in rounds under par (25). Mell quotes Wie saying, “I’m really in a good place with my swing right now.”

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