Sunday, May 20, 2012

Catching up with Michelle Wie

As you could tell from my “most disliked athletes” post last week, my interest in sports is not relegated merely to the NFL. There were no golfers on my list, although Greg Norman was a candidate, and if I had received certain intelligence concerning another golfer in a timely fashion, I would have been torn to choose between her and someone who was on my top-ten list. I am referring, of course, to Michelle Wie. The intelligence I received was that along with Paula Creamer—who admirably fits into Jan Stephenson’s old shoes—Wie was knocked-out in the first round of the Sybase Match Play Championship. This has also been the fate of Tiger Woods once or twice in match play competition, except that it wasn’t necessarily “fated” to occur. You see, after finishing 59th and 38th in the first two tournaments Wie appeared in this season, she has since missed the cut in four consecutive stroke-play tournaments (including a non-LPGA event).

In LPGA events this year, Wie has shot under par in only one round. Wie’s golf game more resembles Rodney Dangerfield’s than that of Tiger Woods’ (in his prime); she ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category: 141st in driving accuracy, 109th in greens in regulation, 134th in putting, and 124th in scoring average. I didn’t even know there were that many players “qualified” to play on the LPGA tour. Wie’s apologists have pointed out that she has been attending school at Stanford, where she has recently graduated with a degree in Communications, the field that probably requires the least amount of study; it is also a “field” where “looking and talking real good”—remember “Broadcast News” and “To Die For”—is the only job description Wie need concern herself with once her playing days are over. Wie has played as a professional since 2009, so I suppose it could be insinuated that school affected her play, although that is not an entirely credible argument. Last year Wie managed to play in 21 tournaments, winning zero and only missing the cut in three. In 2010, she played in 20 tournaments, missed one cut, withdrew in another event, and scored her second LPGA win, the Canadian Open. In 2009, her first full season as a professional, she played in 19 tournaments, missed just one cut, and won her first victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. In fact, in her last three tournaments of the season, that win was sandwiched in between 2 second place finishes.

So what happened? Or rather, what “really” happened? Wie wasn’t bouncing from school to her next tournament every week; she was given her weekly class assignments and she studied on the road. I suspect that Wie was given wide latitude as to the quality of her work and what she was expected to know; her father is an academic, so I suspect he probably helped out on the homework. So we have to look elsewhere instead of the excuses that seem to follow Wie like flies to a cow patty. Last year, former LPGA superstar Annika Sorenstam insinuated that Wie lacked the “mental toughness” to be successful on tour. After admitting that Wie had “one of the best swings in the game of golf,” Sorenstam told sport radio personality Steve Czaban that "You would think that being on the scene for many years now that she would have succeeded a lot more. It just goes to show that it’s a lot more than a golf swing that matters and the mental aspect is a really important part of the game."

Wie supporters would argue that attending Stanford must mean that she has plenty smarts, although it may also mean that her professor father pulled some strings. Her supporters would also argue that Wie will be raring to go now that she doesn’t have college to “distract” her. Unfortunately, in doesn’t seem that school was the problem. We only have to take Wie at her word: "I might not be playing," she told, when asked if her play would improve if she devoted herself full-time to golf. "I might be burned out. I'm not a person who 24 hours a day can only think, live, eat and breathe golf. I'm not that kind of a person. If I did that, I might be fed up with it. Here (in school) I learned how to live on my own, to do things on my own. My relationship with my parents changed. You change from being a kid to someone your parents respect."

Quite a mouthful for someone who as a mere teenager came-off as being overbearingly cocky, self-excusing and refused to take personal responsibility for her failures. What is she talking about here? Is she implying that her parents “pushed” her into doing something she did not wish to do, like playing golf professionally? Or is she implying that she really doesn’t care what people think of her golf game, that it is not as important to her as the media hype surrounding her would have it?

And now we get into the reasons why she likely would have made my “most disliked athlete” list. Wie “burst” onto the scene in 2003, when as a 13-year-old she won some obscure amateur tournament that allowed “all ages” to participate, and obviously not the kind of tournament that serious golfers would see as a stepping stone in advancing their career. Despite her age, Wie was tall and gangly, and certainly had the height to appear “qualified” to play with “the boys.” Who was it that pushed her into playing in PGA events in what was little more than a media stunt? Her father, who maybe wished he had a son? Or was Wie driven by some inner conceit that was merely encouraged by her parents? One thing is certain: Wie treated the LPGA tour as beneath her, even at a “tender” age. After playing in and missing the cut badly in two tournaments in third-division men’s tours, Wie caught the attention of “Sixty Minutes,” which aired a fawning piece on her in 2004. That year she played in her first PGA event, the Sony Open, which like all the men’s events she would play in featured maybe one or two top-fifty players. This event was actually her best performance in a PGA event, just missing the cut by one stroke. But after that, it was one embarrassing display after another. In 2006, she was paid a million bucks or so to appear in an Asian Tour event, the SK Telecom Open. Although she “officially” made the cut, it was only a three-round affair and nobody technically missed the cut. She finished 35th in a field that was decidedly lacking in any players qualified to play on the PGA tour.

Then came the infamous 2006 John Deere Classic. Afterwards, I had this to say about it in a local publication:

“The scene of Michelle Wie being carted off on a stretcher for heat exhaustion after withdrawing from the John Deere Classic was merely the final embarrassment in a considerably less than awe-inspiring performance. Commentators had been hyperventilating over Wie's chances against the lower-tier and has-beens on the PGA tour, but once again she only proved that she doesn't have the ability, endurance or the will to successfully compete against the best players on the PGA tour. She has repeatedly demonstrated a tendency to wilt under pressure. It is difficult to believe that she can ever hope to seriously compete on the PGA tour. If making the cut is her only realistic goal, she will remain what she is now: a publicity stunt and gimmick.”

By now, Wie was surviving on the fumes of a multi-million dollar Nike endorsement, which one may suspect enraged many LPGA professionals beneath the surface. Another flattering “Sixty Minutes” spot was followed by another embarrassing detour on the PGA tour. I wrote

“Why did Michelle Wie skip the LPGA's British Open in order to make a fool of herself again? Well, she did show us that, as is typical of her in her latest PGA a-go-go, she plays relatively well (relative to the bottom-dwellers) in the first round, and subsequently takes a nose dive in the second. It's instructive that Wie, her parents, Nike, the odd ‘go-girl’ supporter and celebrity-gawker types seem completely oblivious as to why people are saying what Wie calls ‘hateful things’ about her. For starters, her ego is a Hindenburg of empty promise that has detonated into flames on nearly every occasion the past two years, yet she keeps coming back like a disease temporarily in remission. Secondly, it is an insult to every professional golfer who depends on his or her abilities to earn a living to see someone who has earned exactly $0 the past two years ‘earning’ seven figures a year from an endorsement contract. Without the Nike money, Wie wouldn't be playing PGA tournaments because you can't make money missing the cut every time, and it costs money to travel and compete. Without the Nike money, Wie would be forced to ‘demean’ herself by playing with the ‘girls.’"

Wie’s occasionally forays into LPGA events before turning professional were mostly eventful for her frequent confusion with and violations of rules. In one event where she “forgot” to sign her scorecard, an LPGA official noted that she acted like “a little kid after you tell them there’s no Santa Claus.” In another event, where she incurred a two-stroke penalty for “grounding” while hitting a ball out of the water, she spent 10 minutes in a rules officials’ tent arguing her case, ending with the petulant Wie failing to reverse the ruling even after Niagara Falls-like emanations from her tear ducts. In 2008, when there was criticism of the LPGA leadership in allowing Wie to play in the Samsung—which supposedly has room only for the 20 best players on the tour—I wrote

“Michelle Wie had a comical week at the LPGA Samsung, the best from which can be said is that Curly was AWOL. As it was, Moe and Larry (Wie and her new caddie) provided enough laughs to keep observers' minds (briefly) off the fact that Wie had failed to break par in a round in her last 12 attempts (including four in men's events). After wasting what seemed like hours on rulings over the first two rounds, Wie and her caddie could then be seen playing in a bunker like a couple of kids in a backyard sandbox. During the third round, when Wie was nowhere to be seen, commentators were joking about how they might actually get through the round without a ruling. Earth to Michelle: They're laughing at you now. Leave it to Michelle Wie to tell us that despite finishing 21 shots off the lead in a field of 20, she feels "real good" about how she played. Wie's egotism is now such that nothing can faze her. She tells us that she will continue to compete against the men, even though she has demonstrated in her past two LPGA events that no one — not even her "inferiors" — is afraid of her. And the truth might be that she really isn't that good.”

Of course, there was a rule that Wie was fully cognizant of, or rather her handlers were—“Rule 88”—which states that a player who cards an 88 or worse round is banned from tournament play the rest of the year. In 2007, Wie withdrew from a Sorenstam-sponsored event when she appeared ready to do just that. Her Nike handler, realizing what was afoot, spoke to her and apparently convinced her to withdraw, due to a “wrist injury.” Although some golfers doubted the truth of this, there had to be some explanation for her horrible play that year, missing the cut in 6 of 9 events she appeared in. This is the only circumstance that I might feel “sympathy” for Wie in, since she was clearly not able to compete, yet Nike was no doubt concerned by now that they were not getting their “money’s worth” out of her.

There are still some people who don’t believe that all the “hype” surrounding Wie is unjustified; after all, this woman who towers over her LPGA competitors (especially the Japanese and Korean players) like Gulliver over the Lilliputians must possess some superior physical skills that are far beyond that of the mere female. In 66 events as a professional golfer, she has won but 2 events, and younger players than she is have won major tournaments. Has there ever been a more overrated athlete with so little to show for it? I can’t think of any. For years the media (and I don’t mean just the sports media), used Wie as some kind of gender-bending contrivance, someone to crowbar into the male domain, proof that there were women who could “compete” on an equal footing with any professional PGA player. Perhaps they are out there, but even the great Sorenstam was a one-and-done, realizing that making money legitimately winning on the LPGA tour was the only way to survive playing the game. Wie’s PGA conceit was funded entirely by Nike money; having invited and benefited from outrageous media hype, once she was exposed as a fraud the penalty was a massive loss of credibility and interest.

Today, if not a forgotten footnote, Wie has certainly been reduced to just another “star” on the LPGA tour—meaning that she has some notoriety for those who make a living from covering the sport. Her recent slide into competitive irrelevance may finally reduce her to what she really isn’t by temperament: a golfer. If she continues to fail to live-up to the hype, her temperament suggests that she will just pack-up her clubs and go home, and everyone will be reduced to wondering “And this is what this was all about?”

No comments:

Post a Comment