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Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Updated: June 4, 11:27 AM ET
No woman is an island

By Molly Knight
ESPN The Magazine

Michelle Wie
Michelle Wie circles the globe trying to prove she can still play against the best.

This story appears in the June 11 Women in Sports issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

MICHELLE WIE STANDS in the Pacific Ocean, barefoot and tugging on jean shorts. Her bright blue fingernails dig into deep-blue denim, and her neon-pink-streaked hair whips in the Honolulu wind. Stunning and six feet, she is impossible to miss. Earlier this morning, while waiting to cross the street to get to this photo shoot, a middle-aged man in a silver Porsche screeched to a halt and yelled that he loved her.

Once upon a time, back in 2003, before the pink hair and the model frame, everyone was in love with Wie. Her effortless, powerful swing had Hollywood suits hell-bent on transforming her from a gawky 13-year-old into a marketing machine and inspired golf god Arnold Palmer to anoint her as the savior of the LPGA. "She is probably going to influence the golfing scene as much as Tiger," he said, "and maybe more." But nearly a decade later, Wie has yet to fulfill Palmer's prophecy. She has missed her last three cuts and is playing the worst golf of her pro career. While she's ranked a respectable 31st in the world, she has not won a major. To title-crazed sports fans, that makes her an afterthought at best. At worst, she's a bust.

Michelle Wie
Wie is willing to focus solely on golf, even if she has to leave her carefree life in Hawaii behind.

In Wie's case, the truth isn't nearly that black-and-white. Perceptions of her depend on the perspective. Is she a four-year LPGA vet with just two career victories? Or a 22-year-old college kid with two wins already and an entire career ahead of her? What really matters isn't what we see. It's what Wie sees. When she walks across the stage at Stanford's graduation ceremony on Father's Day, she will find herself staring at the intersection of Kobe and Kournikova -- poised to either become the champion everyone predicted or the prodigy whose hype outgrew her game.

On Waikiki Beach, that's a tough reality to grasp. This is one of Wie's final trips home to Hawaii before returning to Jupiter, Fla., where she lives full time and can focus solely on golf for the first time in her life. She's upbeat at the photo shoot, as she always is on this isolated nugget of land in the middle of the Pacific. Her positivity is relentless, much like the wind that nixes her afternoon plans of paddleboarding.

"These last few months have been horrible," Wie says, leaving the beach behind for a trip to the mall, "but I feel like I've turned a corner."

THERE IS NO overstating how poorly Wie has played this year. Through her first six LPGA tournaments of 2012, she earned $16,401 in winnings -- 6 percent of the $277,631 she made during the same time frame last year. On May 17, she was eliminated in the first round of the Sybase Match Play Championship by Mina Harigae, the 84th-ranked player in the world. With the pressure off at a par-3 pro-am event the next day, she made two holes-in-one.

Wie can no longer chalk up poor play to youthful mistakes -- not when the No. 1 female golfer in the world, Yani Tseng, is just nine months older than Wie and has 15 LPGA wins, including five majors. Wie has watched as Tseng's career has skyrocketed to heights that everyone thought were reserved for her. Nothing is a given anymore. As Wie circles the globe trying to prove she can still compete against the best, her father, B.J., her mother, Bo, her manager, Jeehae Lee, and her Pomeranian, Lola, remain the only constants.

"When I was younger, everything came easy," Wie says. "I almost didn't have the passion because it was so easy. Now that I've struggled, I appreciate what it feels like to be on top."

She understands the stakes. There isn't a critique that hasn't been turned over in her head countless times. In golf, doubt can be catastrophic; negative thoughts have no place in a mind fixated on repeating a precise motion. But uncertainty has seeped into Wie's head, setting her game adrift. This year, she had found the fairway on just 45 percent of drives through May 17 (down from 59 percent in 2011) and ranked 140th in putts per green (59th in 2011). "Talent has never been the issue," says David Leadbetter, her coach, who has worked with Wie since she was 14. "Michelle can win five or six times a year. She's looking at Yani Tseng and thinking, I better get on my bike and start pedaling. But she has to learn how to be consistent."

Michelle Wie
At 13, Wie became the youngest player to make an LPGA cut.

Consistency is what Wie is fighting for almost daily, trying to recapture the mindset she had at the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship, when she became the youngest player to make an LPGA cut. "Remember when Barry Bonds was having his historic home run season?" says Christina Kim, who was paired with Wie that day and has remained one of her closest friends in the game. "He made the field look 70 percent as big as it was. That's what Michelle does when she's on."

Those 300-yard drives by a gangly teen were great TV, but the promise was in Wie's demeanor. Her confidence bordered on cockiness, so much so that the 13-year-old declared that her goal was to compete with the men at the Masters. Even though that little girl's statement wasn't backed by arrogance -- no more than Palmer's declaration was full of hyperbole -- it didn't bring about a warm reception on the LPGA tour. But Wie was simply a child who hadn't yet realized that the weight of the female golf world had been placed squarely on her shoulders.

RIDING SHOTGUN ON the way to the Kahala Mall in her compact Kia with Lee behind the wheel, Wie shoots a smile that reminds you of that girl. "A cop pulled me over for speeding in San Francisco, and when I showed him my ID, he was like, 'Shouldn't you be driving a Bentley or something?'" Wie says as she recalls getting off with a warning. "But I love my little car."

The Kia, the pink hair, the trip to the mall on her one day off, none of them fits into the mold of world-class golfer. But none of these peculiarities raises eyebrows like her decision to go to Stanford. When Wie went to Palo Alto in 2007, Annika Sorenstam, the winningest golfer in LPGA history, openly questioned Wie's dedication and mental toughness. Never mind that Sorenstam was searching for a major until she was 24. Even golf nut Charles Barkley had lunch with Wie only to drill her about the impossible task of being No. 1 and a full-time student.

Many outsiders see her time at Stanford as an escape from expectations, a noble excuse for not achieving greatness. But college had been in Wie's plans since she first visited Palo Alto at age 7. She finished her communications degree in four and a half years and kept a full tour schedule. She reportedly dated then-Cardinal basketball star Robin Lopez, cheered on good friend Andrew Luck from the stands and says campus life kept her mind from perpetually thinking about golf. That Stanford bubble proved difficult for Wie to leave. Her final term paper, in which she analyzed toy websites for gender stereotypes, was required to be eight pages. It stretched to 27 because she didn't want her last assignment to end.

Michelle Wie
Nine years later, Wie is still searching for her first major.

Entering the mall parking lot, Wie perks up at the sight of the place where she used to decompress. All the benches in the food court are taken, so she picks a table outside the mall's entrance. She doesn't seem to notice people noticing her, and if she does, she isn't fazed. Apropos of nothing, a woman approaches to tell her that the people of Hawaii always have her back, wherever she goes. Wie smiles and thanks her in a way that makes the random declaration of support against an unseen enemy feel commonplace. "I'm very grateful for having grown up here," she says.

But people's expectations await back on the mainland. Last summer, Wie bought a second home in Florida to be closer to Leadbetter; this year marks the first time their practices aren't limited to sporadic sessions throughout the season. "I think this period where she's played poorly has woken her up," says Leadbetter. "She was content to be in college, but right now she's determined to show people a few things."

Wie's tendency toward contentment is hard to fault. Growing up in Hawaii can do that to a person. Despite reports to the contrary, Wie insists she had an idyllic childhood, one that led to a career of her own choosing. "So much has been written about me," Wie says. "That my parents forced me into playing golf. But people don't realize I had so much fun. They make it seem like I never made a single decision for myself."

Still, Wie has always kept her parents close, or vice versa. They followed her first to Palo Alto and have moved into the new house in Florida.

THESE DAYS, WIE finds nostalgia wherever she looks. While recently watching the campus chick flick Legally Blonde, she choked up during the scene when Elle Woods first goes to a student bookstore. Hanging out in front of the mall, Wie admits she is a bit sad that she'll never do that again. Then her eyes flash: "Hey! Do you want to go to a bookstore?"

Punahou School is in the middle of a typical suburban neighborhood, nestled around a baseball field, bland apartment buildings and an aging Catholic church. Wie graduated from the private prep school in 2007, the same year Punahou's most famous graduate, Barack Obama, launched his presidential campaign. Rain starts to drizzle as Wie walks up the fields that extend out from the parking lot. She points to a concrete slab against the back wall of the largest building in the center of the campus and exclaims, "That's where I used to hang with my friends." Lunch is over, and children sit in clusters on the grass and at picnic tables with their laptops, fiddling on Facebook, snapping photos and tagging one another. "Kids today grow up so fast," she says. "I miss being young and experiencing everything for the first time, but I realize you have to move on and make new memories."

It's easy to see why she chose to return to this place, where she's treated like any other recent graduate on a victory lap to greet old friends. They don't care that she hasn't won a major, only that she's been away for so long. Wie hugs a teacher. A lunch lady comes out of the cafeteria when she spots her. It's so good to see you, they say. She hasn't been here in more than a year, and while her schedule will surely keep her away, Wie can't help but promise them it won't be as long next time.

The school bookstore sits toward the back of campus, beyond the cafeteria. The two women behind the desk are instantly cheerful when she walks in. Wie is here to buy two Punahou bumper stickers, one for her car in Hawaii and the other for her wheels on the mainland.

The metaphor is painfully obvious: this 22-year-old woman letting go of her past yet struggling to embrace her future. But that's the dichotomy of Wie, a golfer whose success has always been measured by her age, who achieved worldwide adoration for being so talented, so young. Now she must redefine what the world sees because the clock stops for no one.

"I definitely plan on moving back to Hawaii after I'm done playing," she says on the way to the parking lot. "But who knows when that will be." Wie stops and pulls her long, streaked hair back with a silver clip. "Some people think that I don't really want it, that I don't have it in me to win, that I don't care."

The wind has brought heavy rain, so she breaks into a run toward her car. "But this isn't over," she yells midsprint. "I haven't reached my peak yet. Haven't come close."

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