Surviving school of hard knocks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


I have always admired genuinely happy people. The problem is they are surprisingly hard to find. Michelle Wie is a prodigiously talented golfer who at 10 years old became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. At 14 she shot a 68 and missed the cut by one stroke at a men's PGA tournament and just before her 16th birthday she turned pro and subsequently signed a number of multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Omega and Sony.

Everywhere she went massive crowds flocked. In 2006 she played in a men's event in her parents' homeland of South Korea and it was absolute pandemonium. A few months later she showed up at one of the hundreds of regional qualifiers for the men's US Open, an event that routinely draws about 50 people or so, and over 3,500 people showed up. Officials had to close the gates because the course could not handle the crowd. They loved the towering teenage female prodigy who could hit a ball like a 30-year-old man. But you can't inspire this much love without inspiring just as much hate.

The criticism was harsh and unyielding. She was all hype, she had never won a woman's tournament so what the heck is she doing trying to play with the men? Her family was ridiculed and her father routinely reviled as the worst kind of overbearing stage dad. Players blasted her and so did TV announcers and media pundits.

You would figure being caught in the middle of all that hate would negate all the love, which is why I approached an interview with Wie with a fair bit of trepidation. She would have to be suspicious of me and rightfully so.

Wie was in town for the HSBC Charity Golf Day to raise funds for Unicef at Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club and as I was led down the hall to meet her I had visions of running a gauntlet of snarling handlers and sycophants. But there was only Wie and a rep from her PR agency sitting quietly in the background. She smiled and said hello in a most accommodating and genuine manner.

Tiger Woods lives in a bubble and always has. Very few people get near him. However, the female version of Tiger, at least from a marketing and media phenomena perspective, seems at ease. But surely she must despise this part of the job, meeting with the dreaded media. 'No I actually I enjoy it,' she said. 'It gives me an opportunity to interact with the press and I am grateful for that.'

Wie has fallen off the radar a bit these last few years. In 2007 she enrolled at Stanford University to fulfil a lifetime goal of attending the prestigious school. Again, it garnered a fair bit of criticism as she was accused of not being serious about her golfing career. But she has balanced her studies with her golf and will graduate next March at which point she will go back full-time on tour at the ripe old age of 22.

She claims no one really bothers her at Stanford because they are too busy following around Andrew Luck, the All-American quarterback who will almost certainly be the first pick in next year's National Football League draft. And maybe it's also possible that she slowed down the hype surrounding her by going to school. It almost seems like a normal life.

'I think that is one of the main reasons I chose to go to school,' she says. 'Growing up in an abnormal atmosphere it was a personal choice for me to go to school and I wanted to have something for me. It's been an amazing experience, I learned so much more about myself and living alone has been great. But everyone has their own paths and my life turned out the way it is. There is nothing I can or would do to change it.'

Even the most hard-hearted among us would have been hurt by the barrage of criticism Wie and her family have faced. She addresses it all with nary a tone of bitterness in her voice.

'I think I am a very different person than what people perceive me to be or read about me,' she says. 'But at the same time whatever sells a story works I guess. I learned a lot from my ups and downs.'

Most notably, she learned to be herself. 'Sometimes people don't think I take golf seriously,' she says. 'I like having fun and like being serious at the same time and I enjoy other things in my life like going to school. But there is still nothing that I am more focused on than being the best golfer in the world.'

And on that count, there is quite a way to go. She is currently ranked 14th and her two career wins pale next to the world number one, Taiwan's Tseng Ya-ni, who is only a few months older than Wie and already has five major championships. But while she is hungry for more wins, Wie seems genuinely happy and content with her life. You can't fake that and after everything she has been through, that in itself is a clear victory.