Potential. Just the mere mention suggests possibilities. The wherewithal to achieve much. It also can be an anchor in which the expectation fails to live up to the promise. Golf is littered with people who have had the tagline “potential” tied to their leg and then sank when the burden of expectations became an impossibility to meet.
Michelle Wie started playing golf at the age of four and it became apparent very soon the Honolulu-born golfer had the wherewithal to accomplish much on the golf course. By the time Michelle had turned professional at age 15 she had already won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and nearly made the 36-hole cut at a PGA Tour event in Hawaii. The announcement of her ascension to professional golf was the equivalent of when Tiger Woods said, “hello world,” in turning professional at age 20 prior to the playing of his first professional event in August 1996 in Milwuakee.
However, unlike Woods, who quickly made his mark with his overpowering and relentless playing ability, Wie went through slides—upwards and downwards—causing many to wonder if her sheer potential could truly be harnessed. Whether her name will be added to the list of “potentials” that have come and gone remains to be seen.
My first direct encounter with Wie came during the U.S. Open 36-hole sectional qualifying in 2006 at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, NJ. Wie was attempting to be the first women to ever qualify for the Men’s Open held that year at Winged Foot Golf Club in nearby Mamaroneck, NY.
Wie’s tee time was placed last in the morning 18 session and the first thing one noticed upon entering the grounds was the sheer number of mobile camera trucks on-scene. Over half a dozen providing live coverage of the event for morning shows throughout America—an unheard of situation for any golfer let alone a female one. With no admission charge the course was flooded with people. Estimates of upwards of 6,000-plus people forced tournament officials to shut down the course at 11:00 AM that day.
The fluidity of Wie’s swing was awesome and she was quickly tagged “The Big Wiesy” because of her graceful and repeating motion. Golf shots were hit with total precision and her emotional command was years beyond her then physical age of 16. The end result that day did not see her qualify but the die had been cast—Michelle Wie would do no less for women’s golf than what Tiger Woods was going to do on the men’s side.
Fast forward eight years later and only now the expected promise of Michelle Wie’s career is showing the kind of outcomes that were predicted. This past June, Wie won her first women’s major—the U.S. Open at historic Pinehurst 2. In past years Wie would play well for a series of rounds but become undone—sometimes with a balky putter and other times with poor decision-making in determining the right tactics during an event’s closing holes.
At Pinehurst, Wie faced a critical point during the final three holes. A much needed five-foot putt at the 16th hole saved double-bogey. What was once a three stroke lead now reduced to one and the grumblings of the gallery feared a predictable self-destruct mode. Not so this time. A monumental 25-foot putt for birdie at the par-3 17th pushed the lead to two strokes and a closing par secured the epic win.
Instead of that win serving as a clear launching pad, Wie would head to the next major of the year—the Women’s British Open and fail to make the cut. Questions arose again of whether the focus was there—the desire to compete at the top of the page.
Starting this Thursday the final event of the LPGA season will be played—the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, FL—with the opportunity to finish strong and claim the $1 million bonus prize for securing the top position in the inaugural Race to be the CME Globe champion.
Wie doesn’t have complete control of her destiny, coming into the final event in the fourth position, but a victory in the final event would more than likely give her a good case to be named LPGA player of the year.
The 72-hole event will be played on the Greg Norman-designed Tiburon Course at the Ritz Carlton Resort. Wie will face a field of strong competitors—a number of whom such as Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park and Lydia Ko are also battling for the previously mentioned accolades.
At 25-years-old Wie has fought through tough times with her erratic putting. The more important issue is whether she burns the competitive fire that drove Tiger Woods to total golf supremacy. Reaching one’s potential is one thing. Having the passion to sustain the journey is quite another. Wie blazed a trail for other younger women—notably Ko—to follow. In years past seeing a top tier female playing before the age of 18 would have been unheard of in golf. Now it’s routine. However, early starts can also mean early retirements for other pursuits. Former number-one players Lorena Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam have shown that while triumphs on the golf course meant much to them, there was an even deeper passion to marry and start a family.
Wie can use this week’s event in Naples as a defining end to this year’s golf season—forging a 2015 pathway for even greater successes. Does The Big Wiesy have that burning desire? The answer to that question starts Thursday.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.