David Leadbetter has never worked with a player like Michelle Wie.
She fascinates and frustrates him. She intrigues and infuriates him. She makes him both marvel and worry over the possibilities she still possesses.
Leadbetter says he loves Wie like a daughter, and it’s why he isn’t afraid to say things she might not like to hear. They’ve been to hell and back together since she was 13.
It’s why as Wie works through yet another physical malady getting ready for Thursday’s start of the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout, Leadbetter isn’t afraid to say Wie’s head is as much a key to unlocking her potential as her body is.
“For me, it’s more a mental thing with Michelle now rather than physical,” Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com. “She has to come to terms with what she wants to do, what she wants to achieve and how she wants to achieve it.
“She is very low on confidence right now. She really hasn’t had any good tournaments to speak of this year. She played OK at the ANA, but the last few months certainly haven’t been to anybody’s liking.”
Leadbetter is not saying the physical maladies Wie faces again are not real.
Wie, 26, withdrew from the Swinging Skirts Classic after 15 holes Sunday with neck spasms. She was 11 over par when she walked off the course. It marked three missed cuts and one WD in her seven full-field starts this year. She was treated by the San Francisco 49ers team chiropractor before leaving California and again by the LPGA’s physiotherapists at the tour’s sports medicine trailer at the Texas Shootout after arriving for the event this week. She abandoned the neck brace she was given to play a nine-hole practice round Tuesday and a nine-hole pro-am round Wednesday.
“She doesn’t know how she hurt her neck, whether she slept on it funny or what,” Leadbetter said. “It got to the point where she could hardly turn her neck at all, and if you can’t rotate your neck, you’re going to have trouble rotating your spine. She’s just very injury prone. I call her a walking cadaver. I’m not sure she hasn’t had any part of her body that hasn’t had some sort of injury.”
Wie said Wednesday her neck is feeling better, and she’s expecting to play this week.
“It’s just weird the way the injury came about,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn't be able to play, but I saw my chiropractor, and I've been working with the physios on tour, and it's been feeling a lot better.”
Leadbetter knows the backlash Wie will get teeing it up again just four days after her withdrawal.
“I have no doubt it was a genuine injury,” he said.
Wie battled left hip, knee and ankle injuries most of last season. She endured a deep bone bruise in the index finger of her right hand after winning the U.S. Women’s Open the year before. She has battled through injuries to both of her wrists, through a severely sprained ankle and through a bulging disc in her back in the past.
Leadbetter believes Wie’s short, tightly coiled swing led to her hip, knee and ankle injuries last year, and while he isn’t saying her neck spasms are related, he still sees her putting stress on her body with her swing in ways that worry him. At this year’s start, Leadbetter delivered Wie a “tough-love message,” asking her to quit relentlessly tinkering with her swing and to commit to sticking with a more free flowing motion, with a bigger hip turn that would promote a more rhythmic tempo. Wie likes to restrict her hips and tightly coil around them. Leadbetter is still seeing more of that this year than he likes.
“Overall, her swing is more nice and full,” Leadbetter said. “She doesn’t have these short punches going, but she’s still tinkering a little bit more than I would like. We’ve been trying to get her natural and flowing, but Michelle has her own ideas about how things should be done. She is a very determined, single-minded person. Some of the things, I’m not in total agreement with, but in the end she has to make the decision. Again, I do like the fact that she’s back to a full swing.”
What concerns Leadbetter is how Wie is still coiling so hard around a restricted hip turn.
“I would like to see more lower body movement,” Leadbetter said. “It’s amazing she can swing it back as far as she does with that limited amount of hip rotation. The hip movement gives you your rhythm, your flow and alleviates any tendency to have lower body injuries.
“In her youth, Michelle had the ability to have a full windup with zero hip turn. You look at players today, and for the most part, there is a 45-degree hip rotation. Michelle has about a 15-degree hip rotation.”
Leadbetter said Wie won the U.S. Women’s Open and Lotte Championship two years ago with that tight coil around a limited hip turn. She looked close to dominating with her ball striking in that four- to five-month run, but even then Leadbetter worried what the violent torque was doing to her body.
What Leadbetter likes is the desire he still sees in Wie, the determination to find the sharp ball striking that led to her resurgence of confidence in 2014.
“I read all this nonsense that she has lost her desire, and that's a bunch of hooey,” Leadbetter said. “She works her butt off.
“She is an intriguing character, almost maddening and infuriating, because I know how good this girl is, what she can do. You just want to somehow push her, say `Come on, let's see if we can get to that level we know you're capable of.’ I'm sure it's got to be frustrating to her, and to her parents, because she has these glimpses, but then all of a sudden, it's like it disappears. It would be a heck of a story if she really gets hot again, but I can tell you she is not out there quitting.”
Leadbetter is there helping, sometimes with words Wie doesn’t want to hear.
“You just never know when someone’s game is going to rebound,” Leadbetter said. “Hopefully, she gets a couple good runs under her belt going and that gives her a little bit of confidence. That's really what she needs more than anything else right now.”