How a mentorship program at the Mizuho Americas Open shows the heart of Michelle Wie West

Rose Zhang remembers the Friday afternoon weather delay at the inaugural Mizuho Americas Open like it was yesterday. It was her first start as a professional on the LPGA, but she found herself in player dining surrounded by high school friends who’d gathered to talk about college life and the junior golf scene. The kitchen staff at Liberty National Golf Course brought out warm cookies.

“That was honestly a blast,” said Zhang, “even though it was a delay.”

Zhang, of course, went on to make history over the weekend, becoming the first player since Beverly Hanson in 1951 to win on the LPGA in her pro debut. Hanson, incidentally, will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in June. Zhang, 20, credits time spent with the juniors in helping her pull off the historic victory. Their presence at Liberty National made her more comfortable.

2023 Mizuho Americas Open
2023 Mizuho Americas Open

Rose Zhang speaks during a news conference after a playoff win against Jennifer Kupcho at the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

Integrating juniors into the Mizuho Americas Open was the plan from the start for this purpose-driven event. Tournament host Michelle Wie West, 34, hoped that relationships would form organically as juniors and pros shared the same locker room, dining room, physio trailer and tee times.

While the LPGA event, held this year May 16-19 in Jersey City, New Jersey, features an elite field of 120 pros, the concurrent AJGA Invitational boasts 24 of the best junior girls in the world. Last year, Yana Wilson won the inaugural junior title alongside Zhang, a close friend.

It was a full-circle moment for Wilson, who grew up attending the LPGA Kia Classic in the San Diego area where she would always follow her favorite player: Wie West.

“I was Michelle’s No. 1 biggest fan growing up,” said Wilson, whose father hails from Wie West’s home state of Hawaii. Wilson even has photos with Wie West from a decade ago.

“I showed them to her at dinner yesterday, probably made her feel old,” Wilson said, smiling.

Wie West grew up on the LPGA, becoming the youngest player to qualify for a tour event at age 12 at the Takefuji Classic. (The record was later broken by 11-year-old Ariya Jutanugarn in Thailand.) It wasn’t long before a teenage Wie West was contending at major championships and playing a global professional schedule. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anything today’s junior stars could ask that Wie West hasn’t experienced.

In fact, that’s Wie West’s biggest plea to the youngsters: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

“Don’t be shy this week,” she tells them. “This is your chance to like, really get to know your mentors, really get to be with your role models.”

Of course, Wie West admits she often sat by herself or with her team when placed in a similar situation at tour events as a youngster.

“Someone had to come sit with me,” she said. “I was so scared to go up to a table with Juli Inkster and say, ‘Can I sit down?’ ”

Even so, Wie West wants the next generation to be more bold, reminding juniors that LPGA players are most likely waiting for them to ask questions.

“Pros, we like to share our wisdom, especially to a younger generation,” said Wie West, “but we’re not going to go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, do you want to hear five words of wisdom from me?’ It has to come from the juniors.

“The juniors have to initiate it, and that’s what we are teaching them, and I think that’s a great life lesson to be learned as well. To not be scared to ask for advice and for help. That’s something that I think young women should learn. I don’t think we learn it fast enough.”

2023 Mizuho Americas Open
2023 Mizuho Americas Open

Michelle Wie West congratulates Rose Zhang after winning the 2023 Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

Last year, most of the questions Zhang fielded were about the transition from high school to college. This time around, she’ll be an official “big sister” at the Mizuho, and the questions will likely shift to what went into her decision to turn professional.

That’s the topic Wilson finds herself broaching most often with professions as the University of Oregon commit hears from tour players who excelled at the collegiate level and those who skipped it altogether.

Of course, there might be players in the field, Wie notes, who leave Liberty National thinking the professional life isn’t for them at all. Perhaps they’ll be inspired to explore one of the many professions that surround the game outside the ropes.

“I want this to be a safe place where you can figure those things out,” she said.

Mentorship programs at the Mizuho, however, aren’t limited to elite juniors.

This year’s tournament will also feature the inaugural Mizuho DrivHER Summit, a day-long program developed in conjunction with Girls Inc. that features speakers such as Wie West, LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan, Stephanie J. Hull, President & CEO, Girls Inc., LPGA and AJGA players as well as Mizuho executives.

In 2023, Mizuho named Girls Inc. as the tournament’s charitable partner and awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant. For 160 years the organization has worked to equip girls, particularly from low-income communities and girls of color, with the knowledge and skills needed to change the trajectory of their lives. 

2023 U.S. Women's Open
2023 U.S. Women's Open

Michelle Wie West plays her shot from the 18th tee during the second round of the 78th U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Last summer, Wie West teed it up in her final U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, even though her 10-year exemption from winning in 2014 technically runs out this year. She admits to playing only three rounds since Pebble, her days filling up quickly as a wife, mom and businesswoman.

The role as tournament host came more quickly than Wie West imagined, but she considers it to be a strong part of her legacy. She saw the passion that mentors like Beth Daniel, Meg Mallon and Karrie Webb had for the tour even after their competitive days had wound down and drew inspiration.

“When I was playing,” said Wie West, “I had nothing in me to give. I was in the mode of survival and trying to be the best player I could. At that point, I just kind of received.

“Then when it was my time to give, I take it very seriously. I mean, the game has given me so much. I just want to make it easier on them.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek