Michelle Wie: Golf Prodigy

<B>Steve Kroft</B> Interviews 14-Year-Old Golfing Sensation

No woman athlete has ever successfully competed with men at the highest level of any professional sport. But there is someone on the horizon who may just be able to do it.

She is not actually a woman yet, still a girl, and she's still an amateur, which means she plays for the fun of it.

Michelle Wie, 14, is already a major celebrity in the golf world, a prodigy who seems destined to become the Tiger Woods of the Ladies Tour, the best woman player ever.

But, as Correspondent Steve Kroft reported in April, Michelle wants to compete against men, and she's already proved she can do it.
"I think my ultimate goal is to play in the Masters. I think it'd be pretty neat walking down the Masters fairways," says Wie, who thinks the world is ready for it.

Would she like to win it? "Yeah, I'd love to," says Michelle. "But I think the green jacket's a little bit out of fashion, you know?"

Lots of 14-year-olds dream about winning the Masters, but this is not a fantasy. Earlier this year, Michelle became the youngest person to ever take on the men in a PGA Tour event. And in front of her hometown crowd in Honolulu, at the Sony Open, she performed like a debutante at her coming out party.

She shot 72-68, even par, missing the 36 hole cut by a single stroke, but it was still good enough to tie or beat 64 of the best male golfers in the world – making a believer out of skeptical sports writers like John Hawkins of Golf World.

Where is she in her career now, compared to where Tiger was at his age?

"Taking gender out of the equation? She's ahead of Tiger. She could do more for golf than Tiger Woods," says Hawkins.

At 10, Michelle already had shot a 64 and challenged some of the top women amateurs at the U.S. public links championship. She won the tournament last summer at 13, her first national title, and qualified for five out of six events she played in on the ladies professional golf tour.

"I like challenges, and I have to be the first to do everything, and I just want to be the best," says Wie.

She is just over 6 feet tall, has a perfect swing, and already drives the ball about as far as the average golfer on the men's tour. She is so accomplished and so polished, it is easy to forget that she is just a ninth-grader at Punahou High, and that golf is still an after-school sport.

What's the best part about being 14? "I guess you don't have as much worries as older people," says Michelle. "You know, thing about taxes or anything."

The worst part, she says, is school. Instead, she says she'd rather play golf or go shopping.

Michelle watches "American Idol," listens to Coldplay and Good Charlotte, loves Jim Carrey movies, and goes to the mall with her friends. She also works out every day, practices for three hours after school, and eight hours on the weekend.

Other than that, she seems very much the normal teenager, with all the normal anxieties. But she's says one difference is her height. "I'm just freakishly tall," she says, adding that she hopes she's no longer growing.
Michelle began her golf career at 4 and was introduced to the game by her parents, who both emigrated to the U.S. from Korea. Her mother, Bo, who is now a Honolulu realtor, had been an amateur champion there. Her father, B.J., who is a professor at the University of Hawaii, has been a two handicapper, which means he is very good.

She says she starting beating her parents at golf when she was 7 or 8 years old. "They say I started beating them when I was 9. But I refuse to believe that," she says.

Her mother, she says, is more competitive than her father. "Fortunately, I didn't really get my game from my dad, because my dad chokes a lot," says Michelle. "He'd do really good, but then, if you put a bet on him, which I always do, like double or nothing, he just freaks out. And then he starts choking. So I use that to my benefit when I played with him. But my mom never really chokes."

Michelle's parents are both managing her career. "They have a lot of roles to play. They're kinda like my manager, and mom and dad. And then, they cook dinner for me, so they're cooks," says Michelle. "I'm grateful because they travel with me, so I get scared really easily – so they're always there for me."

The Wies are highly protective of their daughter and say all decisions concerning her career are made collectively as a family. They did not want to be interviewed on camera, saying that Michelle is the one who has earned the spotlight.
But Bev Kim and Lily Yao may be the next best thing. Both are top amateur players and have mentored Michelle since she was 10 years old. They also have raised money through the Hawaii State Women's Golf Association to help defray the costs of her amateur career.

Is Michelle, who is such a young talent, being pushed too soon by her parents to succeed? "We don't see any of that," says Kim. "No. It's her ambition … and all they're doing is encouraging and supporting it."

Michelle's game is now in the hands of one of the best instructors in the business, David Leadbetter, who has coached the likes of Ernie Els and Nick Price.

"I mean, if she was a pianist, you'd see her...practicing eight hours a day, and somebody who loves what they do. And she really loves the game. She's got a real passion for it," says Leadbetter.

Could she play on the men's tour? "If she continues at the present rate, I'd have to say yes. You'd have to say that potentially she could do it," says Leadbetter. "And I wouldn't put it past her. I mean, she's a very, very competitive girl."

Whether she's performing for 60 Minutes cameras, or surrounded by huge galleries in front of a national television audience, Michelle already has demonstrated the one quality necessary to become a champion, and that is the ability to elevate her game to another level when she needs to.

"She's a gamer. She's a performer," says Hawkins. "Michelle loves the stage -- tremendous asset to have when you're a superstar in an individual sport. I don't even think Tiger feels as comfortable on the stage as Michelle does. She's got a lot of personality. She's got nothing to worry about, except when the train gets moving too fast."

And Hawkins says that's what's happening now.

"She could probably compete on the LPGA on a semi-regular basis. Talk about a league, a tour that needs help. Why is it that she's gotta go cross gender to create such a big splash? How about winning three or four majors on the LPGA Tour like Annika Sorenstam's done? You know, why are we jumping point A to point M here? It's sorta become the nature of society. Let's see how far we can push it," says Hawkins.

"Michelle's a great player, but she's 14, and she's female. And she would not be able to compete on anything close to a consistent basis with the best men's players in the world -- best male players in the world."

Hawkins says he doesn't approve of the fact that Michelle is playing in PGA Tour events. "I blame that as much on the PGA Tour as I do on B.J. and Michelle Wie," says Hawkins. "I mean, shouldn't they have a rule? What are we here? Are we a sports league or is this, you know, a reality TV show?"

He says golf is an entertainment business, but it's a professional sports league as well. "I think there's a credibility factor that factors into it," says Hawkins.

"I like challenges, and I think that I get really bored easily," says Michelle. "So if I just play in the women's tournaments and I guess play them over and over again, I think I'll get bored of golf."

What does she say those who are skeptical of her ability to compete with men in professional golf? "I think the reason they're saying that is because they're truly afraid. I mean, men's egos can be easily brought down, and I don't think they want that to happen," says Michelle. "I have some experience with my dad, and I think that it's just the way guys are."

Her words are spoken with the confidence of someone who has been beating boys and full-grown men all of her life. She realizes that she could turn pro tomorrow and be rich and famous, but she says she'd like to go through the basic steps of life.

"Go to high school and then go to college and be in a dorm and stuff like that, I think," says Michelle. "I just wanna go through the basic steps of life, and then I think I'd be fine from then."

Does she worry about all of the high expectations?

"No, they don't really bother me because they're expectations of what I wanna do. So I just have to take one expectation at a time," says Michelle. "Just take it day by day and then, I don't know, I think it'll hopefully it all work out. I don't really see it as a bother because that's what I wanna do."

Her immediate goal is to win one of six LPGA tournaments she plans to compete in this year. She already has finished in the top 20 in the first two, including fourth place at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, one of the four major women's tournaments. If she'd been a pro instead of an amateur, she'd have walked away with $96,000. Not bad, but not good enough.

What happens if she wins? "Then, I'll just be really happy," she says. Even if she can't take the money? "That's the sad part. They just have to hide the check from me. I'll be fine then," she says. "I'll just run away with my trophy. I'll just run away."
This summer, the only trophy Michelle Wie managed to "run away" with was a share of the Curtis Cup. She was the youngest ever to compete in the prestigious amateur event, and she helped the U.S. women's team defeat the British.

She also managed to hold her own in the four LPGA tournaments she played in this summer, finishing in the top 20 in all but one. If she were a professional, she's have earned more than $240,000 -- not bad for a girl who just started her sophomore year in high school.

  • Rebecca Leung

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