NAPLES, Fla. – Michelle Wie’s long, hard climb to the mountaintop this year wasn’t a solitary journey.
She scaled doubt, criticism and even ridicule to rebuild her game with the help of her long-time swing coach. David Leadbetter has been the strongest influence in her life outside her parents.
Wie’s unfailing trust in Leadbetter is a big part of the story of how she rebuilt her broken game. They’ve hung in there together even with so many folks blaming Leadbetter for her failure and urging her to find a new coach.
From Wie’s spectacular surge to celebrity as a teen phenom, to her dismal plummet through injury and slumps, Leadbetter has been a constant companion. Wie says Leadbetter is a large reason she never quit believing in herself. They’ve been to hell and back since she was 13.
“David is kind of like a second father to me,” Wie said. “He is definitely one person that has always believed in me, no matter what.”
With a 5-under-par 67 Friday, Wie is near the top of a leaderboard in yet another big event this year. She moved into a tie for fourth at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, just two shots off the lead. She is giving herself a chance to walk away with $1.5 million on Sunday, the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf. She’s in position to win the $1 million Race to the CME Globe jackpot and the $500,000 Tour Championship winner’s check.
After a frustrating start Thursday, Wie headed straight to the range with Leadbetter.
“We kind of figured out a little something,” Wie said.
For Leadbetter, there’s pride seeing what Wie has overcome winning the Lotte Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. There’s satisfaction, too.
“She’s proven a lot of people wrong,” Leadbetter said.
Wrong about Leadbetter, too.
“People can be nasty,” Leadbetter said. “I always believed there was so much talent there in Michelle, and at some stage it was all going to come out right.”
Leadbetter doesn’t believe Wie has reached her mountaintop yet. With confidence regained, with newfound physical strength, Wie is poised to fuel her resurgence with runs to even greater heights, Leadbetter says.
“Confidence isn’t something you can buy in a bottle,” Leadbetter said. “You have to feel it, and she’s feeling it.
“Michelle’s heading up the ladder, and there’s no reason she can’t climb all the way to No. 1, if she can stay injury free. Nobody out here has the shot making ability she does. Nobody out here can hit the shots she can hit, and her short game is underrated. She can hit these little flops and spinners and has a variety of shots nobody else has.
“And her putting is steady now. I won’t say it’s brilliant, but she’s much more comfortable with her putting now. I really believe if she stays injury free, her best is still to come.”
Leadbetter says there’s a difference in Wie’s team now. She’s leading the way. He says she may still rely on him, and still very much lean on her parents, but it’s different now. She’s in charge.
“I don’t overcoach her,” Leadbetter said. “There are just a few things we work on, and there is always a lot of give and take. She trusts me, but I may suggest some technical thing, and she may say, `Nah, I don’t think so.’ Or she’ll take something and run with it on her own.”
Leadbetter says it’s the same with B.J. and Bo, Wie’s parents. She loves them and still very much values their guidance and the belief they have in her, but she’s ultimately in charge now.
“It’s been a learning experience for everybody,” Leadbetter said. “Her parents have learned. I’m not saying they’ve taken a back seat, but they let her do things her own way. She is very much a free spirit, like a wild horse sometimes. They may say something, where in the past she would acquiesce, and now she may say, `Forget it.’”
Leadbetter says there are a lot of factors in Wie’s emergence this year. She’s better as a player for reasons stemming from something as simple as stronger legs, which make her feet less active and provide a better foundation for her swing, to all the various interests she has developed, from her art to her friendships. He says learning to practice less and more efficiently, to manage injuries and energy, have helped, too.
At the end of last year, Leadbetter urged Wie to put her clubs away for five weeks. Wie did just that. The fact that she is having her best year ever reinforced the importance of time away from golf.
“Michelle is enjoying her life,” Leadbetter said. “She has a really nice balance in her life. In the final analysis, her passion for golf is back.”