Tracing the journey of Michelle Wie

The photograph of Michelle Wie hugging a three-foot-tall champions’ trophy really tells the story of her first LPGA Tour win. But that picture, as the best photos do, tells so much more. It’s her coming-of-age story in one snapshot.

“Winning was incredible, amazing really,” Wie tells HILuxury when reminded of that moment last November at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico. “As much as I anticipated what winning would feel like, I had no idea how good it would really feel. I want to win again and again!”

Throughout the exclusive interview, Michelle shows a maturity that has not always been evident in recent years. The child prodigy once dubbed “Hawaii’s favorite niece” has been growing up very publicly since she started playing golf at age 4, which meant that the whole world got to share in her inevitable growing pains. But her first LPGA title, along with the way she conducted herself last year in her first season as a full-time LPGA member, are signs that if the 20-year-old Stanford junior is not quite yet “all growed up,” she is nicely on the way.

Early Days

Wie was born in Honolulu, the only child to parents Bo and B.J. Throughout her childhood, Wie practiced at local golf courses, and many notable Hawaii pros shared “the trials, tribulations and pleasures,” as Ko Olina golf director Greg Nichols puts it, of seeing her game and personality take shape.

“Michelle was always a delightful, happy and fun person to be around – every bit the American teenage girl who loved nothing more than hanging out with her girlfriends and shopping for her favorite things,” says Nichols, who has known Wie since she was 11. “At the same time, she was very mature, very focused and determined to be successful, even as a young girl.”

That determination and focus translated off the course as well. Wie began attending the prestigious Punahou School in 2000, where her former teachers describe her as a down-to-earth student.

“She had a wonderful circle of friends at Punahou, most of them non-golfers, so they all hung out together because they genuinely liked each other, not for each other’s fame and fortune,” says Chris McLachlin, former Punahou athletic director.

Wie turned pro in 2005 and made the announcement just before her 16th birthday. She graduated from Punahou shortly after in the class of 2007. She decided to enroll in Stanford University, where her aunt, Sang Hyoun Lee, and uncle, Bong Wie, graduated as well.

“It’s really rewarding when you’ve worked your butt off for all of your high school and middle school career to try to get into a school, and you finally do,” she told Stanford magazine upon her acceptance. “It’s probably the proudest I’ve ever felt.”

Her parents have accompanied her to California, and now she lives in a dorm at Stanford, saying she visits her parents’ home a half-hour away from campus “maybe once a week to do laundry.”

“Our relationship is normal,” Wie recently told Golf magazine. “We’re very close, and I love having them around. They’re so supportive. My dad and I bicker. We’re too similar, we clash. Obviously, they drive me up the wall, like any parents would. There will come a day when it’s just me, my manager and my caddie.

But it’s not time for me right now to go out on my own. It’s a brutal, tough world, and I feel fortunate that I have two people who will love me no matter what. So I’ll keep them around for a while.”

Golf Highlight

Wie’s newfound maturity, bright personality and a sense of humor NBC-TV golf analyst and part-time Maui resident Mark Rolfing calls “unrehearsed, she’ll say anything” have come a long way, and it’s something of a surprise to fans, media and especially other players. Until the 2009 season, she’d been a part-time player in LPGA events, and as a teen drew some resentment when she was given an exemption to play in the Women’s U.S. Open over more experienced tour players. In short, LPGA pros were like most of us, thinking we knew who Michelle Wie was, but really didn’t.

Wie’s coming out party was hardly a debutante ball. It was the prestigious Solheim Cup last August, a three-day pressure cooker contested among the best players in the U.S. and Europe. A “captain’s pick” who did not automatically qualify for the team, she turned out to be the star of the winning U.S. side and was the Americans’ only undefeated player. She also ingratiated herself with teammates after finishing her matches by dashing across the fairways to cheer them on.

If she hadn’t won over fans with her clutch shot-making, she did by celebrating the win with a huge grin, and with a glittery American flag decal on her cheek, gleefully waving the Stars and Stripes as fans chanted “USA! USA!”

Says Wie, “The Solheim Cup was a fantastic experience. Being a part of something bigger than yourself is a rare opportunity … my teammates were great, and I really enjoyed getting to know everyone on a more personal level.”

“I was there,” says Rolfing, “and that week really changed things for her. Instead of staying with her parents, she roomed with Morgan Pressell and spent the week hanging out with her teammates. They really got to see her personality for the first time, which is not an easy thing to do in the locker room or on the practice green of a regular tournament when everyone’s competing.”

Growing Up

Wie is still growing up, of course, and won’t turn 21 until Oct. 11. But she’s developed a balance between her golf career and personal life that has radiated in the way she carries herself and approaches life.

“I really feel comfortable in my own skin,” Wie says. “I am able to be myself on and off the golf course, and it’s wonderful. Part of growing up is figuring out who you are and who you want to become. I really feel as though I am in a great place in my life, and perhaps it shines through.”

While she is indeed growing up, she’s still growing into her lithe 6-foot-1 frame. Late last year she astonishingly described herself to Sports Illustrated magazine as a “klutz,” after injuring an ankle by stepping in a hole on the course, then re-injuring the ankle in similar fashion and forcing an early end to her 2009 season (just as injuring a wrist while jogging in 2007 derailed that season).

“I am still trying to figure out what’s wrong with me!” Wie tells HILuxury with a laugh. “I normally have numerous bruises on my body, mostly on my legs and arms from tripping into furniture, walls and sharp corners. In some ways, my limbs have never caught up with my height!”

Except, of course, when she’s smacking a golf ball 300 yards.

Branding

Wie’s distinctive fashion sense – she lists “black, bright pink, yellow and blue” as her favorite colors – shines through every time she steps onto a golf course, a walking, talking, fist-pumping model for Nike attire.

“I’m actively involved with the team at Nike to develop and provide feedback on their new products,” she says. “I meet with their apparel and footwear designers to review new products, preview new collections and test innovative concepts.”

She’s discovered an artistic side in recent years too, posting some of her sketches and musings on her blog (ablackflamingo.blogspot.com). With an eye for innovation, a career in fashion design may loom in her future.

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