By Zak Kozuchowski
GolfWRX Managing Editor
Jim Nantz called it “a win for the ages.” A 21-year-old Tiger Woods blew away the 1997 Masters field by 12 shots with a record-setting score of 18-under par. After sinking his final putt, Tiger walked off the green and shared a hug for the ages with his late father, Earl Woods.
No matter what you feel about Woods, it’s hard not to appreciate that moment. With his first Masters win, he changed golf forever. He made the game cool, bringing to golf countless athletes of all races who otherwise may have never thought to pick up a golf club. And with him every step of the way – molding his mental toughness, supporting him through the pressures of his superstar status, was Earl.
Michelle Wie shared a similar journey as Woods in her junior career. At age 10, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, becoming the youngest-ever female golfer to do so. In 2003 at the age of 13, Wie become the youngest player to make an LPGA cut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Her talent earned her a sponsor’s exemption to the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in 2005, where she fired a second-round 68 to miss the cut by a single shot. At 14, it was assumed that Wie would not only dominate the LPGA Tour as Woods did the PGA Tour, but that her prodigious length might allow her to be competitive on the PGA Tour as well.
Wie turned professional at age 16, and like Woods, signed a lucrative endorsement contract with Nike. Just as Woods, she also attended Stanford University, although her professional status kept her from competing in collegiate golf. But that is where the similarities between Woods and Wie end.
Now 23, Wie has been a major disappointment on the LPGA Tour. She has won only two tournaments and is still without a major title. Her run at PGA Tour events was questioned after her poor play at the 2007 Sony Open, where she missed the cut by 14 shots.
Since that time, the spotlight on the LPGA Tour has shifted from Wie to several other young talents, who are accomplishing feats that were expected of Wie.
Last year, Lexi Thompson became the youngest LPGA Tour player to win an event at the age of 16 (Wie wasn’t an LPGA Tour winner until the age of 20). Morgan Pressel became the youngest winner of an LPGA Tour major at the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship at the age of 18, and Yani Tseng, who is a few months younger than Wie, already has five LPGA major titles and 10 other wins on the LPGA Tour.
There is plenty to criticize about Wie’s game, especially a lack of confidence with the putter. She has experimented with a belly putter, changing the way she holds the putter several times, once famously in the middle of a competitive round.
But the most easily criticized part of her game, however, is the lack of separation between Wie and her parents. Unlike the relationship between Woods and his father, a bond which was thought to be an important part of Woods’ success, Wie’s relationship with her father B.J. has been seen as a hindrance.
Wie has had enormous setbacks in her career. Early on, there were her ill-advised attempts to compete on the PGA Tour, an experiment that resulted in 11 out of 12 missed cuts (her one made cut occurred at a low-level Japan Golf Tour event). She has also suffered through multiple wrist injuries, and a dubious withdraw after 16 holes from the Ginn Tribute in 2007 where she was in jeopardy of losing LPGA Tour playing privileges for that year as she approached a round of 88.
It’s hard to say what exactly has derailed Wie’s career so far. By accepting sponsor’s exemptions to PGA Tour events, and only playing in the LPGA Tour’s largest events at a young age, she was rarely in a position to succeed. In his youth, Tiger Woods only played in events that he thought he could win. Wie, however, was placed in situations where making the cut was an accomplishment.
Despite Wie’s talents, she is not in the top 5 of any of the LPGA Tour’s statistical categories. While she’s currently ranked ninth in driving distance, she is ranked outside the top 100 in every other category with the exception of GIR (86th) and sand saves (97th). She’s currently 41st in the LPGA Rolex Rankings and on the bubble to qualify for the U.S. Solheim Cup team.
As Bobby Jones said, “Golf is mostly played on a six-inch course, the space between your ears.” For Wie, the most important course may be creating more than a 6-foot space from her parents.
It is said that a watched pot never boils. Likewise, an over-analyzed golfer rarely reaches his or her full potential. Wie graduated from Stanford last spring, and is at the time of her career where most LPGA Tour stars are expected to flourish. But because of Wie’s early success, it feels as though she is on the downside of her career. But she doesn’t have to be.
After a tough round, all golfers need a little breathing room. It gives them a chance to reflect and move forward. Since Wie first attracted the world’s spotlight, I doubt she has ever had any breathing room. And as the pictures from last week’s Evian Masters show, she certainly doesn’t have any now. Maybe it’s time she’s given some, especially by those closest to her.
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