Wie Winding Down Wild Ride
Nontheless, Nike, headquartered nearby, does loom large in these parts. Not surprisingly, B.J. Wie, slightly embattled father of a certain 13-year-old prodigy, acknowledged that the folks who signed basketball phenom LeBron James to a $90 million dollar endorsement deal have stopped by to say hello to the Wie family.
Meanwhile, a sports marketing executive I know said he's heard whispers that if Michelle turned pro tomorrow she'd command conservatively six to seven million per year in endorsement money.
Don't fret, though. She's not making the jump likely for several years or more. So, then why the push now to play so many events?
It's only one on a laundry list of questions B.J. Wie was more than happy to address, if only to quell the growing corps of critics who fear that Michelle is no longer a wondrous novelty but an overexposed and overworked 9th grader.
'Our goal was to play a lot of high level golf,' he told me.
Then, referring to a largely negative review in the recent issue of Golf World, he explained his position further.
'They think we should use the Earl Woods strategy and slow down,' he said. 'Michelle's case is different than Tiger's. Girls mature faster than boys.'
Michelle's standing to the side, six feet tall and able to look me in the eye. I'm 6'4'.
'Look, Michelle's made the cut in four of the five LPGA events she's played,' he pointed out. Tiger at 13 was years from making his first cut.
'Why should I use Mr. Woods' strategy?' Mr. Wie wonders.
B.J. was also eager to shed light to the subject of finances. 'In terms of expenses it's actually less money to play the schedule we've played on the LPGA Tour than if we were to play in high level junior events,' he said. The Wies live in Honolulu. Mom, Bo, is a realtor. B.J.'s a professor in the school of Travel Industry Management at The University of Hawaii.
'The airfare, hotel, rental cars cost the same on the junior circuit as they do on the professional tour,' he added. 'Actually, because the food is free on Tour we might actually save money.'
In the grand scheme, considering they're sitting on a financial geyser that should erupt at a time of their choosing like Mt. St. Helen's, it's not a point that's likely to engender any sort of sympathy. Mr. Wie's simply of the mind to set the record straight.
And one doesn't get the sense that the parents are exploiting the child. Remember, she does possess an extraordinary gift.
'The LPGA offers Michelle a chance to compete against better players on better courses,' the father says. 'She has this opportunity, so why should we reject it?'
Perhaps, some have suggested, because she should be in school right now. I've heard it asked on numerous occasions, does she really need to play in yet another tournament?
Michelle and I talked about this.
'I'm not going to die without school,' she says, the mouth full of braces breaking into another grin. And you quickly remember that while she is six feet tall, she is also only 13. 'Who doesn't want to miss school?!'
'Any homework on the road?' I ask.
'Oh yeah,' she groans.
Michelle's a high achiever in the classroom, too. She's an A student taking honors English, Japanese, Social Studies and Biology.
'What do you think of the talk of burnout?'
'It's not a big issue,' she says flatly. 'I'm having fun. I don't think of golf 24/7. Even when I'm playing I don't think of golf all the time.'
'What do you think of?'
She busts out laughing. 'All sorts of random things fly into this head.'
'Look,' she explains, 'we can't predict the future. Writers can't predict the future. If I burn out then I burn out.'
After the wise words, I balk. She's really only 13?
She goes on to tell me that she'd like to study fashion someday.
'Like Venus,' she says. Interesting that she brings up Venus Williams. My sports marketing friend says the model the Wies should emulate is not necessarily the one crafted by Earl Woods, but by Richard Williams, mercurial father to the towering tennis sisters.
'He held them back so they weren't overexposed when they arrived,' he said. 'As a marketer, I think Michelle's overexposed.'
I counter that ultimately performance is all that matters. If she wins the U.S. Open at 17, the marketers will beat each other with five irons trying to get in line.
'It would be a moot point,' he agreed.
Still, the ranks of the golf writers are populated with barking dogs. And they were heard after Michelle played with the men last week in Boise. 'The Gen-Xploitation of Michelle Wie has been going on all summer,' wrote John Hawkins in Golf World, 'disguised as an opportunity for the young lady to 'develop' while playing at the semi-highest level. In actuality, it's a chance for some title-bearing corporation to sell more tickets, for The Golf Channel to attract a few hundred more viewers, for a couple of needy minor- league circuits to buff their own shingles.'
What looked like exploitation to one writer looked differently to the man with the most to lose.
'No one got shot,' B.J. Wie said. 'Michelle helped to raise a half million dollars for charity. Isn't that good enough?'
And yet, Mr. Wie, while shielding Michelle from the negative press, concedes that he's learning from some of what's written.
'Sometimes the articles help,' he said. 'Maybe I'm pushing too hard. Maybe we'll travel less next year. Certainly the press has given me room to think about next year.'
At this point, Suzy Whaly drops by the area off to the side of the putting green. Michelle's surprised at how tall Suzy is, and quickly stands shoulder to shoulder with her. Beth Daniel joins the circle and shares a laugh. Apparently in the pro-am Michelle won a friendly wager with Meg Mallon, closest to the hole with a wedge. Meg might show up with a new hair color, we hear. In this small scene, Michelle's comfortable and playful, and if there's resentment from other players, as has been reported, it's not felt here.
And so it goes. The morning paper revealed an ad for the tournament, with Michelle pictured alongside Annika. Yes, tournament organizers are using a 13-year-old to sell tickets. But the Wies are here willingly, gaining experience. And as Dad said, no one got shot.
The plan, according to Mr. Wie, is to get a college degree. He says without hesitation that she'd likely play in the men's NCAA. As for Michelle's stated goal of playing in the Masters, that, she explained, can be achieved by winning either the men's U.S. Amateur or Publinx.
And at this declaration by Michelle, a collective scoff can be heard throughout golf.
Yet, Tiger put Nicklaus in his sights as a boy. Who are we to tell people what size dreams they should dream?
Finally, I ask Mrs.Wie if she thinks any harm's been done.
'I don't think so,'she replies in a soft voice. 'Michelle handles herself so well. She loves people.'
It's by no means comparable to Lewis and Clark, though if she ever does make the Masters that certainly would be uncharted waters. In the meantime, Michelle Wie is nearing the end of the first year of a modern-day adventure.
'I already miss the summer,' she said with a smile.
Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.
The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?
“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.
After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.
“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”
Rory almost channels Tiger with 72nd-hole celebration
ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy’s final putt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt awfully familiar.
He rolled in the 25-footer for birdie and wildly pumped his fist, immediately calling to mind Woods’ heroics on Bay Hill’s 18th green.
Three times Woods holed a putt on the final green to win this event by a stroke.
McIlroy was just happy to provide a little extra cushion as the final group played the finishing hole.
“I’ve seen Tiger do that enough times to know what it does,” McIlroy said. “So I just wanted to try and emulate that. I didn’t quite give it the hat toss – I was thinking about doing that. But to be able to create my own little bit of history on the 18th green here is pretty special.”
A performance fit for a King
ORLANDO, Fla. – Five hundred and 40 days had passed since Rory McIlroy last won, and since golf lost one of its most iconic players.
So much has transpired in McIlroy’s life since then – marriage, injury, adversity – but even now he vividly recalls the awkward end to the 2016 Tour Championship. He had just captured the FedExCup and $11 million bonus, but afterward, in the scrum, he was asked instead to reflect on the passing earlier that day of Arnold Palmer, at age 87.
“Obviously I had a great win and it was a great day for me, but in the big scheme of things, that didn’t matter,” he said. “The game of golf had lost an icon, a legend, an inspiration to so many of us. I probably wasn’t as ecstatic as maybe I would have been if Arnie hadn’t passed away.”
But there was McIlroy on Sunday at Bay Hill, at Arnie’s Florida home, summoning the kind of charge that would have made the King proud. With five birdies in his last six holes, he broke away from a stacked leaderboard to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first victory on Tour in 18 months, since that bittersweet evening at East Lake.
“Kind of ironic,” he said Sunday.
But the connection between McIlroy and Palmer runs deeper than that.
Palmer and McIlroy’s wife, Erica, shared a birthday – Sept. 10.
Palmer wrote letters to McIlroy after each of his many victories.
Palmer had lobbied for years to get McIlroy to play this event, even threatening him. “If he doesn’t come and play Bay Hill,” Palmer said in 2012, “he might have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he’s going to play next.”
McIlroy kept all of his limbs intact but didn’t add the event until 2015, when Palmer’s health was beginning to deteriorate. That week he sat for a two-hour dinner with Palmer in the Bay Hill clubhouse, and the memories still bring a smile to his face.
“I was mesmerized,” McIlroy said.
And entertained, of course.
Palmer ordered fish for dinner. “And I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A.1. Sauce?’” McIlroy said.
“And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ And he said, ‘No, for me!’"
McIlroy chuckled at the exchange, then added somberly: “I was very fortunate to spend that time with him.”
McIlroy has been telling anyone who will listen that he’s close to playing his best golf, but even he was surprised by the drastic turn of events over the past 10 days.
During that 18-month winless drought, he endured an onslaught of questions about his wedge play, his putting, his health and his motivation. Burnt out by the intense spotlight, and needing to rehab a nagging rib injury, he shut it down for four months last fall, a mental and physical reset.
But after an encouraging start to his 2018 campaign in the Middle East, McIlroy was a non-factor in each of his first four Tour starts. That included a missed cut last week in Tampa, where he was admittedly searching.
“The best missed cut I’ve ever had,” he said.
McIlroy grinded all last weekend, stumbling upon a swing thought, a feeling, like he was making a three-quarter swing. Then he met for a few hours Monday in South Florida with former PGA Tour winner and putting savant Brad Faxon. They focused on being more instinctive and reactionary over the ball.
“He just freed me up,” McIlroy said.
Freed up his stroke, which had gotten too rigid.
And freed up his mind, which was bogged down with technical thoughts and self-doubt.
“The objective is to get the ball in the hole,” he said, “and I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”
All McIlroy did at Bay Hill was produce the best putting week of his career.
Starting the final round two shots back of Henrik Stenson, McIlroy made the turn in 33 and then grabbed a share of the lead on the 11th hole.
Tiger Woods was making a run, moving within a shot of the lead, but McIlroy answered with a charge of his own, rattling off four consecutive birdies – a 16-footer on 13, a 21-footer on 14, a chip-in on 15 and a two-putt birdie after a 373-yard drive on 16 – that left Woods and everyone else in the dust.
Then McIlroy finished it off in style, rolling in a 25-footer on the last that was eerily similar to the putt that Woods has holed so many times at his personal playground.
“I know what the putt does,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to make my own little bit of history.”
Justin Rose has played plenty of meaningful golf with McIlroy over the years, but he’d never seen him roll it like he did Sunday.
“He turned on the burners on the back nine,” he said. “He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”
It’s little wonder McIlroy pulled ahead of a star-studded leaderboard, closing with a bogey-free 64 and winning by three shots at 18-under 270 – he led the field in driving distance, proximity to the hole, scrambling and strokes gained-putting.
“It’s so nice that everything finally came together,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, there figures to be plenty of conversation about whether McIlroy can channel that fearlessness into the major he covets most. The Masters is the only piece missing from a career Grand Slam, and now, thanks to Faxon’s tips, he’s never been in a better position.
But after a turbulent 18 months, McIlroy needed no reminder to savor a victory that felt like a long time coming.
There was a hug for his parents, Gerry and Rosie.
A kiss for his wife, Erica.
A handshake for Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, and then a fitting into the champion’s alpaca cardigan.
The only thing missing was the King himself, waiting atop the hill behind 18 with his huge smile and vice-grip handshake.
“Hopefully he’s up there smiling,” McIlroy said, “and hopefully he’s proud of me with the way I played that back nine.”
McIlroy remembers Arnie dinner: He liked A-1 sauce on fish
ORLANDO, Fla. – Fresh off a stirring victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy offered a pair of culinary factoids about two of the game’s biggest names.
McIlroy regretted not being able to shake Palmer’s hand behind the 18th green after capping a three-shot win with a Sunday 64, but with the trophy in hand he reflected back on a meal he shared with Palmer at Bay Hill back in 2015, the year before Palmer passed away.
“I knew that he liked A-1 sauce on his fish, which was quite strange,” McIlroy said. “I remember him asking the server, ‘Can I get some A-1 sauce?’ And the server said, ‘For your fish, Mr. Palmer?’ He said, ‘No, for me.’”
A few minutes later, McIlroy revealed that he is also a frequent diner at The Woods Jupiter, the South Florida restaurant launched by Tiger Woods. In fact, McIlroy explained that he goes to the restaurant every Wednesday with his parents – that is, when he’s not spanning the globe winning golf tournaments.
Having surveyed the menu a few times, he considers himself a fan.
“It’s good. He seems pretty hands-on with it,” McIlroy said. “Tuna wontons are good, the lamb lollipops are good. I recommend it.”