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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What Michelle Did "Wrong"

There's a popular belief in our culture -- a very dangerous belief, in my opinion -- that there's just one correct way to raise a prodigy, that child who seems gifted far beyond the rest of us in some area. Fans and the media debate this issue whenever a child star appears to burnout, become self-destructive, or in some other way fails to meet the expectations we had for them at the start.

Michelle Wie with US Women's Open trophy

Does anybody ever question what constitutes a realistic expectation for a prodigy? Better yet, how would any of us know what it is? Most of us have no experience being one, yet we all think we're accurate judges of how they should perform!

Probably no golf prodigy has been more maligned than Michelle Wie. Huge expectations were heaped on her, then criticism that bordered on child abuse, then she was treated like a circus sideshow, and finally she was written off by many in the golf media as well as by some fans as a lost cause. Yet, here she stands, holding the US Women's Open trophy, having won on arguably the toughest track any women's major has been contended on -- after all, it was the same course the men played their Open on just a week before -- and she doesn't seem to be at all bitter about what she's gone through to get here.

Perhaps it's time we re-examined the things Michelle supposedly did "wrong."


One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Michelle is that she didn't "develop a habit of winning." She didn't dominate the amateur ranks before she turned pro, and she didn't dominate the women's game before she tried teeing it up with the men.

It's easy to say she should have played more amateur events when you aren't the one paying the expenses. Everybody knows that Lizette Salas virtually lived in a pickup truck while she played amateur tournaments, but nobody seems to put 2 and 2 together. It's expensive to play the amateur circuit! And as Mark Rolfing has noted, Michelle was already beating all the amateurs in Hawaii. Add the travel expenses back and forth from Hawaii. If you say she should have just moved to the mainland, can you show me how that's any cheaper? How else could she afford to keep getting better except by turning pro?

As for playing with the men... well, the LPGA allows 7 exemptions for a non-member. She was already trying to get exemptions on the other women's tours. If the men would let her play, why not? Makes sense to me.

I also think you can argue that there's a downside to this "habit of winning" argument. It can result in an obsessive approach to the game, one that breeds a sense of entitlement, that you not only CAN win but that you SHOULD win. Is it possible that Tiger's scandal started because he felt he was entitled to anything he wanted, because he had "a habit of winning" at everything? Is that the source of all those repeated F-bombs he and other players are notorious for dropping after poor shots? (Yes, Michelle was also guilty of that once, in 2012 when she was playing so badly. She did apologize for it.) Is this the reason so many players define their self-worth by how well they score? did a wrap-up about Michelle's win and noted that:
Wie admitted there were times she doubted herself and doubted this moment would ever happen. No matter how hard she worked, she didn’t feel she was getting any better for a stretch. She wanted to be perfect, carrying the weight of a golfing world that had watched her accomplish things no one her age ever had before. Her instructor David Leadbetter kept telling her over and over that results sometimes took years to show, but not for her she thought. Everything had come so easy and so early with the game to have patience for improvement. (my emphasis)
Hmmm... and Michelle was struggling with this despite not having a "habit of winning"? Isn't this why players win majors and then try to change their games in an effort to get better? Could developing the "habit of winning" actually be counterproductive? Could it be teaching them that they have to be perfect?

A few weeks back during a golf broadcast Nick Faldo said "Second place is first loser." I'm afraid that, all too often, this is the attitude of those with a "habit of winning." I suggest an experiment: Pick any player who "did it right" and count how often in one year they express gratitude for the opportunity to simply compete. Then compare it to how many times Michelle expressed her gratitude just last week. I bet Michelle wins that one easily.

Which habit do you prefer?


Besides the necessity of getting a chance to play, there was the learning curve. If you can handle steep learning curves, you can learn a lot more and learn it faster. Learning to compete with the men in the conditions they play under clearly helped her become better faster.

Even when compared to Lexi Thompson, who grew up competing with her brothers, Michelle demonstrates the advantages of having played under PGA Tour conditions. Michelle played 14 men's tournaments around the world -- 8 of which were PGA Tour events -- and the shots she learned clearly gave her an edge over Lexi at Pinehurst. Despite Lexi's power and those deep divots, she simply can't stop the ball the way Michelle can. That's not innate talent, folks -- that's experience with the conditions, pure and simple.

I should note that Annika -- who played with the men once, you'll remember -- said that Tiger told her she should play more than one tournament in order to get used to the conditions. Annika didn't... but Michelle did.

If Tiger "did it right," shouldn't his advice count for something?


I'll let Michelle handle this one, from an interview she did with Golf Digest in early 2012:
Wie relished the growth, from struggling through an engineering class on "Nanotechnology" to thoroughly enjoying a class on "Virtual Reality." She lived in on-campus dormitories for four of the five years, learned to become more self-sufficient and no longer fears she will act like a needy high-school kid in her 30s and 40s, dependent on her doting parents
That counts as one of the most significant ways her time at Stanford shaped Wie, to hear her tell it: her relationship with her parents. They moved to Northern California when Wie arrived at Stanford, taking the concept of hovering parents to another level and prompting rampant skepticism and snickering in golf circles
Wie insists she's fine with their involvement, saying they gave her space in school and help manage her career. And now, after realizing she could join her friends on Senior Pub Night and still show up at 9 a.m. sharp for practice the next day, they trust her judgment--a far cry from her freshman year, when they called her dorm room practically every night. (B.J. talked to Golf World for 20 minutes by phone but declined to be quoted in this story.
Asked how the college experience changed her, Wie steers the answer toward her relationship with Mom and Dad
"I'm a completely different person," she says. "I feel like I'm a lot more mature. ... In college, you have to fend for yourself. That's what I learned, just taking care of myself without having to rely on my parents so much. I feel like we've become more partners in our golf, our business, everything
"They respect what I say. Not that they didn't before, but when you're kind of little and haven't really done anything by yourself, they obviously don't listen to you as much. They kind of want to baby you and protect you. I feel like we have a lot more respect in our relationship. They trust me more."
Okay, maybe they were over-protective. (I know my parents were, and I wasn't a prodigy at anything.) And I suspect it got a bit worse later on because of the media attacks -- a logical reaction from over-protective parents. But this sounds like a fairly normal parent-child relationship to me, a relationship where Michelle knew she was loved.

Bear in mind that, when she was interviewed right after her win Sunday, she said there had been times when she doubted she would ever win... but she credited her parents for helping her through those times. She still feels comfortable having them around -- they were there for the win -- even though it's not particularly "cool" for a young adult to want the old folks around. And it looks to me as if Michelle has grown into a fairly well-adjusted adult who avoided most of the self-destructive tendencies of other prodigies.

Perhaps more prodigies would be better off with horrible parents like Bo and B.J. Wie.


GC showed when some of the most dominant recent players got their first majors. Annika was 24, Lorena Ochoa was 25, Stacy Lewis was 26.

I'll add a few more: Morgan Pressel won a major at 19; it's been 7 years, with only one LPGA win since. Yani Tseng won 5 majors by the age of 22, but is now struggling worse than Michelle ever did. Paula Creamer got a major 4 years ago at age 23 and went winless until early this year, despite a strong career before that major.

Michelle is 24. Winning quicker is no guarantee of staying power.

But I saw something Sunday that you rarely see among golfers, successful or otherwise. After taking that unplayable on 16, getting down for double-bogey, and seeing her lead dwindle to a single stroke with only two holes left, Michelle looked at her caddie and smiled. No panic, no frustrated gestures... just a smile. The piece I mentioned earlier says "Internally, she was saying 'words you can’t say in public' as she left the green. Externally, she giggled and stalked her way to the 17th tee with a one-shot lead." But this was a woman in control of herself, one who has finally learned it's okay to be less than perfect.

Then she stepped to the 17th tee, hit the green, and nailed a 25-foot putt dead in the center of the hole for a two-shot lead going to the final hole. Her reaction told you how much that putt meant to her.

After all, two years ago Michelle was one of the worst putters on any tour. Last week, the woman everyone wrote off played four rounds at Pinehurst #2 without a single 3-putt. Not one.

Perhaps she's done everything wrong in her career, like her critics say. Perhaps she shouldn't have played with the men so much. Perhaps her parents wrecked her career and she just doesn't realize it. Perhaps she didn't develop that "habit of winning" everybody is so convinced is necessary for success. Perhaps...

But it seems clear to me that Michelle has developed something better -- the knowledge that, no matter what life throws at her, SHE. WILL. NOT. BE. BEATEN.

If that's doing it the wrong way, I wish more people would screw up like Michelle Wie. Well done, girl.