A business trip to Hawaii is a little like vacationing at the DMV, although it’s far more likely you’d rather crunch numbers in the Aloha State than pitch a tent in the driver’s license renewal line. Of all the trips I made halfway across the Pacific Ocean over the years, none left a greater impression than the journey in 2004.
Michelle Wie’s performance in her first PGA Tour event remains the peak moment in a career that has never come close to reaching its expected altitude. To shoot 72-68 and miss the cut by a single stroke at the ’04 Sony Open was universally classified as a colossal success, but a decade later, one can see how it stunted Wie’s growth as a player and led to her becoming the landmark underachiever she is today.
Two victories in 154 starts on the LPGA? Even the snarkiest cynic couldn’t have envisioned such a paltry win total 10 years ago. In five seasons as a full-time LPGA member, Wie’s best finish on the money list was ninth in 2010—her last W came at the Canadian Women’s Open that August. She was 64th on the money list in 2012, 41st with just four top-10s in 26 starts in ’13. (Click here for video of Wie discussing her life on and off the course)
As much as I suspected that it might all go wrong, I could never have imagined that Wie would begin 2014 ranked 61st in the world, having gone 7 ½ years without a top-five finish at a major. Rarely has yesterday’s news sustained such relevance. It’s almost as if the golf gods got fed up with the hyperbolization and glorification of a 14-year-old girl and decided as a committee to do something about it.
Too much + Too soon = Epic swoon. Before we explore why, let’s look at a couple of guys who haven’t been such pronounced busts.
WHEN’S THE LAST time two of America’s best young players took on new swing coaches at the start of a season? Keegan Bradley’s decision to leave Jim McLean, with whom he’d worked since 2009, might have come about, in part, from his friendship with Michael Jordan, who had a pretty good NBA career, at least as a player.
Jordan and Bradley play a lot of golf together – His Airness is said to have encouraged Bradley to work on his mental toughness. But it was the influence of Jason Dufner, another Bradley companion, that led Keegs to longtime instructor Chuck Cook.
Bradley will kick off his 2014 this week at the Humana Challenge, as will Rickie Fowler, who recently enlisted the services of Butch Harmon in an effort to take his game to the next level. Both high-profile players went winless on the PGA Tour in 2013. Fowler ended up 40th on the ’13 money list, 29 spots behind Bradley, who did finish second at the Byron Nelson Championship and T-2 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I’ve been around the game a long time – these things happen,” McLean told me last Saturday. “Keegan finished first in the overall ranking in 2012 and fourth last year, [but] he didn’t win. When he got down here [Miami] in ’09 he only had one side-view mirror on his car, and that was held on by duct tape, so it’s been a great ride.”
McLean was referring to their four-plus years together, not the banged-up automobile. There are a couple of things a veteran golf writer generally avoids analyzing, and a swing-coach change is one of them. The world’s best golfers are constantly striving to get better, and they obviously know what’s best for them from a mechanical standpoint.
That said, there isn’t much anyone can do to improve Bradley’s ball-striking. In 2013, he was the only player to rank among the top 15 in driving distance and top 125 in driving accuracy – Keegs placed 11th and 61st, an exceptionally rare and productive combo. He ranked third in par-5 scoring, 14th in proximity to the hole from 50 to 125 yards. If you’re looking for weaknesses in the guy’s statistical profile, good luck.
His putting numbers weren’t spectacular, but at 49th overall, Bradley certainly holed more putts than a majority of his fellow competitors. If Jordan thinks his boy needs to get tougher between the ears, OK, but I think of Bradley as a very talented young player who has capitalized nicely on his opportunities.
In all three of his victories, someone left the door open, and the big Vermonter ran through it like a blitzing linebacker. I would just be careful, taking advice from someone who used the first pick in an NBA draft on Kwame Brown.
FOWLER, MEANWHILE, HAD been without a swing coach since the death of Barry McDonnell in 2011. More than three years have passed since U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Corey Pavin successfully gambled on Li’l Rickie as a captain’s pick in 2010; Fowler’s heroic rally from 4 down with four holes to play earned a crucial half-point that kept the Yanks in it until the end.
He remains stuck on one victory, however; that coming in a playoff over Rory McIlroy and D.A. Points at Quail Hollow in 2012. It was not the turn-the-corner triumph many thought it would be, and in each of his four full seasons as a pro, Fowler has tended to start the year in better form than he finishes it. To me, that suggests a lack of go-to mechanics – a set of swing principles any player can revert to when things aren’t going well.
I am of the opinion that Harmon is the most effective swing coach on the planet, one of the best ever. His ability to see even the slightest flaw and get it fixed – without compromising the rest of the motion – is uncanny. Butch fixed Greg Norman way back when, and then turned the raw greatness of Tiger Woods into sheer dominance. He tweaked Fred Couples, tightened Phil Mickelson and molded Adam Scott.
The man can do everything from change the oil to rebuild the engine. I remember attending a function held by Cobra maybe 15 years ago, part of which involved a bunch of chopper journalists having their swings dissected by Harmon. One corrupt move after another, Butch dispensed precise advice that worked far more often than it did not.
Alas, the session ended before he got to my swing, which would explain a lot of things.
“We just spent two days together and we’re both really happy with the progress,” Harmon told me last week regarding his work with Fowler. “We’re looking to see improvement each week under the gun and [the Humana] is the first big test.”
As a fan of the game and longtime practice-range loiterer, I’m very bullish on Fowler’s future, both as a successful competitor and commercial commodity. I’ve had a couple of dealings with the kid and really liked him. He got off to a very fast start in his rookie season (2010), which definitely heightened expectations, and when he performed well at the Ryder Cup that fall, the standard of success shot through whatever roof was left on the building.
Since winning in Charlotte 20 months ago, Fowler’s final-round visibility has been defined largely by a pair meltdowns while trying to chase down Tiger Woods – at the 2012 Memorial and 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational. In terms of career trajectory, he’s in a different place than Bradley, who has won a major (’11 PGA) and a WGC while contending on a regular basis.
Both guys have made potential career-altering decisions in an attempt to improve, and for now, that’s nothing but a positive thing. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, too, is the walk to the World Golf Hall of Fame. However long that walk may be.
WIE AND I played holes together in January 2003. She beat me by a shot or two, and to this day, I’m still thinking the result might have been different if Butch had given me that pointer at Cobra headquarters several years earlier.
What struck me that day just outside Honolulu was how clingy her parents seemed to be. Not protective, not even omnipresent, but clingy. Like B.J. and Bo Wie didn’t have anything else to do but lurk silently in the immediate background while their just-turned teenager, an only child, began cutting her teeth on the triple-decker sandwich known as fame.
That never really changed – at least it didn’t until it was too late. Michelle constantly sassed her dad, and as the father of 13- and 10-year-old daughters now, I cannot tell you how quickly the interview would have ended if my older kid tried to show me up even once in front of a writer for a national golf magazine.
You look at Tiger when he was that age. He never threw his old man under the bus, never disrespected him publicly and probably didn’t do it more than once or twice privately. Eldrick and Earl Woods were best friends. For the most part, man and boy were equal partners in the pursuit of mega-greatness, each needing the other, as the phenom was quick to recognize the value of his father’s hands-on parenting.
Instead of stepping back, B.J. Wie insisted on serving as his daughter’s caddie in her formative years. This exacerbated the contentiousness of a relationship that didn’t need any additional friction, real or perceived. Players and caddies disagree all the time. Fathers and daughters, however, can’t leave all those disagreements on the golf course. At some point, the resentment follows you home.
For Michelle, golf was always a business, never really a game, but primarily a means to a very lucrative end. She played against men ostensibly to avoid comparisons to other women. She attended Stanford to gain her freedom as much as a five-star education. And because she had such a gorgeous golf swing, she thought she was better than she was. She chose style over substance in a game where substance crushes style every time.
When she graduated from college and it came time to do nothing but play golf, she just couldn’t perform. Michelle had her money. She had her fame. She had nothing left to play for but the love of the game and the exhilaration that comes from competition, but if the game became a chore long ago and you’d rather shop for sandals than compete, you end up with two victories in 154 starts.
You begin the year 61st in the Rolex Rankings, no matter how little sense it makes.