It's been a confounding journey for Michelle Wie
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Only a real cynic would suggest Michelle Wie's current television commercial promoting the Kia Soul misses the most obvious sales pitch.
Then again, there is no shortage of sarcasm in professional golf. So, as the 30-second spot pitching the cool style and attractive lines of the mini-SUV draws to an end, it is hard not to imagine the perfect closing kicker: "-- and plenty of room in the backseat for your parents."
Wie's is an intriguing if not confounding journey. She arrives this week for the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major championship of the season, with much to celebrate and feel good about, yet hauls so much baggage it is easy to wonder if she can ever be fulfilled.
She's 23 and just completed classes for her degree from Stanford University.
"Got my grades in," she said. "Passed all of my classes." Graduation ceremonies in June will make it official.
Wie also has two LPGA victories and a pair of Solheim Cup appearances on her résumé. She is rich with endorsement money.
Almost any golfer arriving for an LPGA season fresh out of college and carrying Wie's credentials would be viewed as a superstar in waiting. Except Wie is not just any golfer. And it is growing more and more difficult for many not to wonder if her fate is to be an overpromoted, mishandled golfing disappointment.
To provide perspective: When competition begins Thursday at Mission Hills Country Club, Wie will be playing in her ninth Kraft Nabisco Championship. Since appearing in the 2003 Kraft Nabisco as an amateur, becoming the youngest player to make an LPGA cut, she has been folded, spindled, packaged and sold as the soon-to-be greatest player women's golf was ever going to see.
The clock continues to tick -- and it has needed several changes of fresh batteries.
Finally, however, Wie can be more LPGA player than novelty act. With college, and, before that, a list of questionable management decisions, behind her, she can play an LPGA season with a single focus.
"I'm so proud of myself for sticking with it," Wie said of the decision to earn her degree. "But I'm also more than ready just to jump in full speed ahead with golf. I'm really looking forward to the season and just have time to practice more, work out more, rest more."
I'm so proud of myself for sticking with [college]. But I'm also more than ready just to jump in full speed ahead with golf. I'm really looking forward to the season and just have time to practice more, work out more, rest more.Michelle Wie on finishing her degree at Stanford
The question is whether Wie's game has been irreversibly stunted before ever getting the chance to grow.
"Well, I don't think going to school stunted her golf game. But I think other things might," said LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, on site this week with other past greats who gathered to compete in a Legend/Junior Pro-Am. "I'm sure her mind was not always 100 percent on golf, because she probably was thinking about studying for tests and classes. But I think there is so much going on around her that stunted her growth more than anything.
"If everybody would just let her play the game and enjoy it and do what she could do best -- she's so talented. There's just too much thinking going on around her."
As anyone who has followed Wie's career in the slightest will know, Lopez is referencing an ill-fated journey onto men's tours.
Riding the public fascination for her junior accomplishments and early amateur appearances in selected LPGA events, Wie, in 2004, accepted an invitation to play in her home state's PGA Tour Sony Hawaiian Open. She was 14.
From there, an obsession to compete against men seemed to take over her camp. A stated goal was to become the first woman to play in the Masters and the U.S. Open.
A week before her 16th birthday, Wie turned pro and was rewarded with monster-millions of dollars in endorsement deals. Lower-level PGA Tour events, eager for publicity, gladly lined up to offer sponsor exemptions.
Meanwhile, she all but ignored the LPGA, showing up pretty much only for the biggest events. She became something of a men's tour sideshow, parents B.J. and Bo never beyond arms' reach and stoking the publicity machine.
By the end of 2006, her first full year as a professional, Wie had missed the cut in 11 out of 12 tries against men. The one cut she made was a low-level Japan Tour stop. On the PGA Tour, Wie's 2006 lowlights included the John Deere Classic, where, nine holes into the second round, 8 over par and 10 shots beyond the projected cut, she withdrew citing heat exhaustion. In the 84 Lumber Classic, she was 23 shots back of the leader after 36 holes.
"I would never, ever had her enter men's tournaments," said JoAnne Carner, affectionately known as "Big Mama" during her LPGA Hall of Fame career that included 43 wins. "Confidence comes from winning. If you are entering a men's tournament, you are not entering to win. She was entering to make the cut.
"That's a totally different attitude. And it carries over. She finally gets in a women's tournament, and you are not used to being in the hunt. She's going to be a great player no matter what, but I think she was under her parents' direction so much that she really needed to go to college and start operating on her own, get more maturity and make some of her own decisions."
It's interesting Carner would say that.
Now, fresh out of college, Wie has plans to base herself in Jupiter, Fla., and play out of the Bear's Club. She bought a house last summer and plans to move in -- along with parents, B.J. and Bo -- very soon.
Another LPGA great, Meg Mallon, does not roll her eyes and shake her head at that news.
Mallon first met Wie in a pro-am when the junior was 14. Over the years, she has become a mentor.
Mallon provides a different view.
"I see a phenom at 12,'' Mallon said. "A kid who was 5-9 at 12 who hit it farther than most women on tour, who had a polished game. You can't put her at the junior level. She'd already been playing against boys in Hawaii, so she's comfortable in that role. By 14-15, she's so developed, so polished, there's no handbook for that. There really isn't. Her parents were there trying to do the right thing for her along the way, yet there may have been some mistakes. But they had literally a phenom in their hands. So are you stunting her growth by not letting her go play golf?"
Lopez does not agree.
"I don't think she had the opportunity to win enough," Lopez said. "People say, 'She's finished second, she's finished second.' There's a big difference between second and first. The way you feel pressure-wise when you are going down 18 one shot up, going down 18 tied, or one shot down.
"She went a long time without winning. Then she came out on tour, and they are fierce out here."
Since joining the LPGA in 2009, Wie has two victories -- one in her rookie season and another in 2010. She went winless last season, and so far this year has played three events, missing one cut and finishing tied for 38th and tied for 59th.
"Obviously, I want to win more," Wie said. "I mean, that's a big thing. I feel like it's been pretty mediocre so far. I want to be the best player that I can be and the best in general, and obviously, it's going to be a fun ride from here on out."
Except, at this point in the journey, a sizable piece of LPGA history was expected to already be on the luggage rack. At the height of Wie-mania, it seemed a given she would have done things no other teenager had even imagined.
Instead, Lexi Thompson won at age 16 last year, becoming the youngest winner in LPGA history. Nineteen-year-old rookie Jessica Korda won earlier this season. Morgan Pressel, now 23, became the youngest major championship winner when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco at 18. Yani Tseng, only months older than Wie, is No. 1 in the world and the youngest player to own five majors.
All are landmark accomplishments of the type envisioned for Wie.
In the interview tent this week, Wie responded with a frown to the inquiry as to whether the success of the young players might have caused any second-guessing or frustration.
"Well, I think that age isn't really important anymore," she said. "I think that when I came out, there was a lot of buzz because I was the youngest one to do this, youngest one in the field, but that's not the case anymore. As you see, obviously, Yani is really young. Age is not a factor anymore.
"I think when I go out there I don't think about how old a player is. The game has gotten a lot younger, and I do feel the urgency to be better, to play better, but that's not really because of my age. I just want to play better no matter how old I am. And I think it's great that the game has gotten a lot younger."
As it has, Wie seems to be aging fast.
"I'd love for her to reach her potential and be what she wants to be," Mallon said. "I love Michelle. I'm a friend of hers, and I want her to be happy playing golf.
"I think she has found places of happiness. I think she knows where it is. But watching her the last few weeks, I don't think she's happy right now. I'm hopeful she finds joy in the game."
Unfortunately, rear-view mirrors are not optional.