Michelle Wie exclusive interview: How golf's great prodigy grew up

Vicki Hodges
Michelle Wie is enjoying some time away from golf - Getty Images North America
Michelle Wie is enjoying some time away from golf - Getty Images North America

It was watching the pressure-soaked, hold-your-breath moment of Norwegian Suzann Pettersen sinking the winning putt at the Solheim Cup, and the shock retirement she announced straight after that reaffirmed Michelle Wie’s position on her own future.

Three months into an enforced break because of a wrist injury, this is the longest the American has spent on the sidelines since she exploded into golf as a 10-year-old prodigy in 2000.

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Watching the tournament unfold in Gleneagles from the alien environment of the television studio where she was making her commentary debut, Wie was full of admiration for Pettersen, the star of this Hollywood ending. Wie has spent nearly 20 years as one of women’s golf’s standard-bearers, but do not expect this Hawaii-born trailblazer to ride into the sunset any time soon.

The mini-sabbatical, which runs until early next year, has been refreshing, she admits. But approaching her 30th birthday on Friday, there is far more she wants to achieve.

“I know a big part of me doesn’t want to end on an injury,” she tells Telegraph Sport. “I want it to be a voluntary end. I want to go out there and remember what it’s like to play without pain. I want to go out there and remember how fun it was and how great the game is.”

In Wie’s whirlwind arrival in the sport she played alongside adults at 10, turned professional at 16, and entertained a queue of sponsors desperate to sign a girl who was out-driving the boys – and some men – on the golf course. It all meant that, by the time she was 18, Wie was ranked fourth in the 2007 Forbes’ Top 20 earners under-25 list with an estimated £15.4 million.

<span>Wie was playing alongside adults from the age of 10</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Wie was playing alongside adults from the age of 10 Credit: AP

But a long list of injuries: to neck, back, knee, hip and ankle, has curtailed that prodigious talent, so much so that she is able to bond with Tiger Woods over the travails of the treatment table.

“I’ve seen Tiger a couple of times [since her time out],” Wie says. “It’s pretty funny that every time we lift off with, ‘How’s your neck, how’s your back?’ and he’s like, ‘How’s your this, how’s your that?’ It takes about 10 minutes of checking off the injuries before we talk normally.

“It’s comforting talking to other athletes going through the same things. Sport can be harsh, but other stories can hit home and normalise it. It can give you a boost of energy to go again.”

That does involve waiting until her wrist has healed. It is an injury which was plagued her since she fractured her right hand in a car accident two years ago. Wie is arthritic in both wrists and has just finished the latest round of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to accelerate the healing of her injured ligaments. Her daily routine has become one of treatment, icing, recovery, therapy and repeat.

The break has provided a time for reflection, especially as she nears a milestone birthday. “The twenties are hard,” Wie says. “They are too hyped. I think the twenties are the years you figure things out and I’m excited about being in my thirties. There’s still so much more I want to accomplish.”

With a degree in communications obtained from Stanford University, a career in TV when she hangs up the clubs looks the most likely option. Her commentary debut for the Golf Channel at the Solheim Cup was unsurprisingly assured.

“I definitely felt adrenalin, being on live TV,” Wie says. “It’s probably the first time I’ve felt that since stepping away from the game.”

Planning her wedding to Jonnie West, the son of NBA star Jerry West, in Los Angeles in August also provided a welcome distraction during her break. So, too, was moving “closer to her roots” as she swapped the east coast for the west.

There are still plenty of boxes left to unpack, but Wie has already covered the walls of her new home with another one of her greatest passions – her artwork. Not that her preferred style mimics her generally sunny disposition.

“We have a lot of my skull paintings around the house,” Wie says. “I just really like skulls. I think with all the stress, it’s just my way of getting it all out. I haven’t really psychoanalysed it yet.”

As well as the extreme career highs of entering her first LPGA event at 12, winning her first major at the 2014 US Open in Pinehurst and clocking up another four tour victories, the American has experienced obstacles and pushback along the way.

Arguably the most divisive was her decision to compete on the PGA Tour and challenge herself against the men. Some critics argued she needed to prove herself against one of the women’s game’s greatest ever talents, Annika Sorenstam, and learn and compete against her own gender first. Wie played 13 tournaments in traditional men’s events, but made the cut just once.

<span>Wie is keen to bounce back from her prolonged lay-off</span> <span>Credit: Getty images </span>
Wie is keen to bounce back from her prolonged lay-off Credit: Getty images

“I’ve had plenty of ups and downs and they’ve been well documented,” Wie said. “I’ve been really fortunate that my parents put so much focus on education, and putting an emphasis on having a normal life because they knew that with everything going on I wasn’t going to have a normal life.

“I’m really proud that I went to Stanford and got my degree. I just think that every mistake that I’ve made has taught me and hopefully I’ve learnt from it.”

Watching compatriot Coco Gauff announce herself on the tennis scene aged just 15 this summer sparked memories of her own breakthrough.

“I was very impressed with how she carried herself throughout Wimbledon and then the US Open,” she said.

“When I was young and playing there wasn’t any social media and I’m glad for that. If you don’t read any articles or go searching for them, there’s no way you would come across it. But it’s a completely different situation with kids nowadays. I think she’s handling it really well.

“It definitely makes me remember the times when I was that age and playing. It seems crazy, and I think Coco will probably feel the same way. When you’re doing it, it doesn’t feel that crazy. It feels pretty normal. You feel like you earned your right to be there. It doesn’t feel weird that you’re so young and playing so well. Looking back, it is crazy that I turned pro at 16.”

It remains to be seen how long Wie’s body can cope with the hamster wheel of the golfing circuit. Just do not expect this creative individual to walk away without a happy ending.

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