Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2019

Michelle Wie Looks Into the Abyss

The scores were 84 and 82. The two rounds over as many days included fourteen bogeys, three doubles and one unfortunate quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 8th hole, a slew of dropped shots that were offset by just a pair of birdies. All that added to the sixteen pars produced a total score that was 22-over par for the thirty-six holes of play. There are weekend golfers by the millions who would give serious consideration to trading their firstborn child for a guarantee of two rounds in the low to mid-80s. But these scores were not the work of some country club amateur playing from the member’s tees. Rather they were the first and second round returns for Michelle Wie at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the third major of the LPGA’s season.

Although the thirty-six hole cut was at a rather high 5-over par, reflecting the brutal difficulty of Hazeltine National Golf Club, half an hour west of Minneapolis, Wie obviously missed the chance to play the weekend by a wide margin. Her total for two rounds was better than just four players in the field, all club professionals playing on one of the exemptions for teaching pros into this tournament cosponsored by the PGA of America.

Wie came to Hazeltine after missing two months of competition while once again trying to recover and rehabilitate from wrist surgery performed last fall. With virtually no preparation her struggles on the very challenging layout were not surprising. But it was not just Hazeltine’s length or the deep and gnarly rough that did her in. Of greater concern for golf fans was the obvious pain Wie was in during her rounds, which left her holding an ice bag to her right wrist between shots.

Wie had tried to come back earlier in the year, an effort that was cut short after four starts because of pain very similar to what she was manifestly experiencing from very early in her first round Thursday. In the media room after her posting her opening score, Wie acknowledged as much, saying “It was kind of a little foolish to think that I would shoot really well, just hitting golf balls last week. It’s a tough golf course, but I’m really, really happy that I played. Just feeling a lot of joy, just being out there, and, you know, competing again. It’s going to take time, and I’ve just got to be patient, and, thankfully, I have all afternoon to get warm again and take care of my wrist.”

But then Wie was asked about her future, and the tears came. “It’s hard. It’s just one of those situations where I’m not, you know, I’m not entirely sure how much more I have left in me, so even on the bad days, I’m just, like, trying to take time to enjoy it. But it’s tough.” Given that Wie won’t turn 30 until this fall, anyone who follows the LPGA would surely agree that it is far too soon for her competitive career to be at such a serious crossroads.

A cynic might question that, pointing out that since she joined the LPGA, she has posted just five wins, including the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst #2. Among her contemporaries, there are multiple Americans who have matched or exceeded Wie’s single major win and raced past her in total victories. That list includes Brittany Lincicome, Stacey Lewis, Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson, whose LPGA win totals range from eight to twelve tournaments. But except for possibly Creamer very early in her professional career and Thompson more recently, no one on that list nor any other current LPGA golfer has come close to matching Wie in widespread recognition to fans beyond the relatively small number who closely follow the women’s game.

Part of that is because of her physical presence. At six feet tall, Wie literally stands above most of her fellow LPGA members. But mostly it’s because of the phenomenal talent she displayed at a precocious age, and her willingness to push the boundaries of the sport.

At the age of 10 Wie became the then-youngest golfer to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Women’s Public Links Championship. One year later she won the state stroke play championship in her native Hawaii, and at the age of 12 set a record, since broken, as the youngest ever to qualify for a LPGA event. In 2003 Wie continued her record setting, becoming the youngest golfer to make the cut at a LPGA tournament at the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the year. Having done so, she then shot 66 in the third round and was in the final group of the day on Sunday. That same year she made the cut at the Women’s Open and won the Public Links, becoming the youngest golfer, male or female, to triumph at a USGA adult championship.

Wie was also not shy about competing with men. She was given a sponsor’s exemption into the Sony Open in Hawaii in 2004, becoming (of course) the youngest female to join the field at a PGA Tour stop. While she missed the cut, Wie shot a 68 in the second round and finished her two rounds ahead of forty-seven men including four winners of majors and tied with fifteen including another three major champions.

In 2005 Wie turned pro but was forced to play on sponsor’s exemptions because she was not yet 18 and thus not eligible for LPGA membership. That year she posted top-5 finishes at a pair of majors, the ANA and Women’s PGA, as well as at the Evian Masters, which now has major status. When the first Rolex World Rankings for women golfers was issued in the winter of 2006, Wie was third, behind only Annika Sorenstam and Creamer.

It may well have been impossible for Wie to live up to the expectations placed on her once she finally had her Tour card, but her chances of doing so became even slimmer after suffering injuries to both wrists in 2007. That setback was the first on a growing list of ailments, particularly to her hands and arms, that have plagued Wie throughout her “official” LPGA career that began in 2009. Now it appears that the cumulative effect of those injuries, coupled perhaps with her determination that most likely led Wie to attempt comebacks too soon on more than one occasion, have finally taken a career-threatening toll.

In the improbable comeback of Tiger Woods from severe back injuries to major championship form, golf fans have seen that medical miracles, or something that looks very much like them, can happen. The hope here is that with proper rest and rehabilitation, and if necessary, reliance on a medical exemption for which she would surely qualify, Wie can return to form at some point in the future. The alternative to which she sadly alluded at Hazeltine National would be a most cruel ending to a career that began with a level of promise rarely seen in sports.

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