<
>

Michelle Wie's lessons for Rory McIlroy


Rory McIlroy, say hello to Michelle Wie.

Name doesn't quite ring a bell? No wonder. You and Michelle are practically twins -- you were born just five months before her -- but you had yet to even become familiar with puberty when she was becoming golf's newest wonder.

You were both only 10 when she became the youngest player to qualify for the USGA Women's Amateur.

You were just 12 when she became the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event.

At 16 you were making a bit of noise of your own as a golf prodigy, notching a few "youngest ever" records in winning tournaments in Northern Ireland -- but nothing like Michelle. By then she had become the youngest female (13) to make the cut at the U.S. Women's Open and the youngest female (14) to play in a PGA Tour event.

Statuesque and a budding beauty, she was the object of Madison Avenue's desires even before she was old enough to legally sign her name.

She was showered with millions -- not on the course but outside the ropes. In 2008, Fortune estimated she earned $19.5 million in endorsement income the previous year, dwarfing her 2007 LPGA winnings, which were just $23,024.

Not long ago, Michelle Wie was the biggest thing in golf not named Tiger Woods. … Sound familiar now?

It would be actually understandable if Wie had slipped from McIlroy's consciousness. It seems that just about everyone else has forgotten about the woman who was once the girl who would save women's golf, as well. Especially in the midst of the rush to anoint McIlroy, the charming, mop-haired 22-year-old U.S. Open champion as the newest man who would save golf.

She was little more than a sideshow at last week's U.S. Women's Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Wie needed to drain a 35-foot putt on the 36th hole just to make the cut, then proceeded to finish tied for 55th, 18 strokes out of first.

You wouldn't have heard much about Wie at all, in fact, had not LPGA legend Annika Sorenstam, now a commentator for the Golf Channel, gone after her with a wicked verbal swing: "I would say [Wie] has not performed to her expectations or her potential," said the woman with 72 LPGA Tour wins, including 10 majors. "The amount of time and amount of years she's been out here, you would think that by now she would have won a lot more."

Wie turned pro in 2005 and has two LPGA tournament wins (but no majors). Yet she is not a has-been -- and hasn't exactly been a ghost in recent years. She played in 19 pro tournaments in both 2009 and 2010 and has played in 10 so far this year. However, she has just nine top-three finishes in those events, including the two wins, and she's been only respectable on the money list, averaging about $900,000 in 2009 and 2010.

One reason that Wie recently has caused us to ask "Where?" rather than say "Wow!" more often is that she had the audacity to go to college -- and stay there. A senior at Stanford this fall, she's scheduled to graduate on time next spring, which means golf has often had to wait as Wie teed up the books.

Sorenstam attended the University of Arizona and played two seasons of collegiate golf for the Wildcats. In 1991, the young Swede was the first freshman and first non-American to win the NCAA golf championship; in 1992, she was runner-up.

Yet Sorenstam slammed Wie for balancing classes (and the amenities of collegiate life) with hours at the driving range. "Is she hungry; does she love the game as much as you would think that you need to be out here every week?" Sorenstam said. "She's focusing on school, she's focusing on friends. ... What does this really mean to her?"

Wie didn't allow the barbs go without retort. In fact, she offered a very educated response. "You know, going to school is definitely one of my biggest dreams," she said just after making the cut. "But at the same time, I am a professional golfer, and I am putting that as a priority -- even when I'm at school. If I have a choice between having to study or having to practice, I choose to practice. ... But at the same time, I think getting an education is also important. ... I'm not going to say going to school makes my life easier. But I'm trying my hardest, and I think I'm doing what I really want to do. If I quit now, I'm going to regret it for the rest of my life."

In many ways, Wie offers McIlroy a wondrous cautionary tale. The lessons are clear:

For one, don't believe the headlines. Every major will not be a stroll through the park as was your 8-shot U.S. Open win. Wie finished third, fifth and third in her first three majors after turning pro, promoting more of the kind of headlines that had long predicted greatness for her.

Yet she has not finished higher than sixth in any major since and has missed the cut or withdrawn four times.

Another lesson: It's your career (and life), not everyone else's -- especially those who are encouraging you to start crafting your Hall of Fame induction speech.

Fortunately, some sane voices worth listening to are trying to slow the roll. Jack Nicklaus thinks McIlroy will win "a lot of majors," he told the BBC on Sunday. But for now, McIlroy has won just one, hardly a number deserving of the accolades he's received since the U.S. Open triumph. "Don't anoint him as the crown prince yet," Nicklaus added. "When he starts to win two, three or four, then you can say he's the guy we've got to watch, period. But until that time comes, he's one of a group of talented players that have got an opportunity to win."

And an opportunity to be great -- as still does Wie.

You guys should really talk.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

MORE COMMENTARY »