Michelle Wie welcomes her 30th birthday today with more optimism and curiosity than regret.
Though rehabilitation continues almost a year after undergoing surgery to repair her troubled right wrist, with a failed comeback having abruptly ended another year, Wie is eager to celebrate a life she still sees as full of possibilities.
She’s a newlywed now, building a larger life with dreams that still very much include golf.
“I think turning 29, I was freaking out more, because I was getting close to 30,” Wie told GolfChannel.com. “But, as it’s gotten closer, I’ve accepted my fate, and it’s exciting. A birthday like this, it makes you think about your life, my crazy life, but I’m very excited about where life’s going to lead me in my 30s.”
During the last tournament fans saw Wie play, she was in tears, at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. That was back in June, when she played with an ice bag on her wrist between shots. Her future, even she conceded then, was uncertain, with arthritis plaguing both wrists.
“I’m not entirely sure how much more I have left in me,” she said at the time.
Wie is determined to find out this next season.
While she loved doing TV analysis for Golf Channel during the Solheim Cup last month, Wie isn’t ready to hang up her golf spikes. She is driven to get herself ready for the LPGA’s season opener in January, the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Orlando, Florida.
“I’m very determined to play next year,” Wie said. “There is no hard, set date for my return, but, in my heart, I really want to be back for the Tournament of Champions.
“I’m doing everything I can to get there, but at the same time, I have to learn to listen to my body. If I’m not ready, I’m not ready.”
Wie underwent surgery in October of 2018 to repair an avulsion fracture, bone chips and nerve entrapment in her right wrist. She tied for 23rd at the Honda LPGA Thailand in her return last February but pain followed her the rest of the year. She withdrew in the first round of her title defense at the HSBC Women’s World Championship, the week after Thailand. She missed cuts playing through pain at the ANA Inspiration, the Lotte Championship and the Women’s PGA before shutting her season down.
“I know now forcing it, forcing my body to feel right, doesn’t work,” she said.
Wie hasn’t touched a golf club since leaving the Women’s PGA Championship four months ago.
“I want to avoid another surgery at all costs,” she said.
With a series of platelet-rich plasma treatments on both wrists behind her, she is focused on healing through compression therapy, laser treatments and other non-invasive methods. She hopes to pick up a club again sometime in December.
She has a few birthday wishes to offer up today.
“I would like nothing more than another win,” Wie said. “That would mean the world to me. I think about it every time I do rehab. That’s the reason I wake up every morning and go to rehab. It’s the thought of winning again.”
A new chapter begins
Wie found her extended time away from the game this year more exilharating than she could have imagined. A wedding will do that.
In August, Wie married Jonnie West, the Golden State Warriors' director of basketball operations and son of Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West. She left her home in Jupiter, Florida, and moved to the San Francisco Bay area to make her new life with West.
“I love it,” Wie said. “I do miss my Jupiter crowd a lot, but it’s a new chapter in my life, and I’m very, very happy.”
West has changed Wie’s life.
“They were meant to be,” said Nickole Raymond-Tara, a bridesmaid in Wie’s wedding and once Wie’s manager. “It was a fairly instantaneous thing after they met.”
Wie and West were set up with the help of PGA Tour pro Justin Thomas, one of Wie’s friends from Jupiter. Wie and West had met before, learning that Thomas was a mutual friend. They both ended up texting Thomas, within an hour of each other, asking him about the other. So, Thomas played matchmaker, encouraging the romance.
Last December, Raymond-Tara and Wie were both bridesmaids in Jeehae Lee’s wedding. Lee is Topgolf’s director of business strategy and also was once Wie’s manager and later one of Wie’s bridesmaids.
West wasn’t able to accompany Wie to Lee’s wedding, because it took place in the heart of the NBA season, but he may as well have been there.
“Jeehae and I joked that Jonnie was one of the wedding guests, because Michelle had him on FaceTime practically the entire time we were together for the wedding,” Raymond-Tara said. “It was as if Jonnie was there with us.
“Jeehae and I were like, 'Well, this is it. This is the guy. Michelle has definitely met her match.' They really understood each other on a fundamental level.”
Raymond-Tara saw the common ground. West grew up knowing what an athlete-celebrity’s life was like, the unique demands that came with that and the pressures, too.
Lee also saw that foundation in the relationship.
"Watching Michelle go through the hard times, sometimes I would feel helpless, as her friend, not really knowing how to be there for her," Lee said. "Johnnie knew how to be there for her. He just knew. He could step in for her in just the way she needed. It's been incredible for her to have that.
“Michelle has a great family support network, and Jonnie’s just added another layer of depth to that.”
West followed Wie in the gallery at the ANA Inspiration this year, as she struggled to come back from the wrist surgery.
"He has this calming influence on her," Lee said. "He's just very grounded."
West has helped Wie continue to build a real life outside golf, something that Raymond-Tara and Lee watched Wie begin to form in earnest after enrolling at Stanford while playing the LPGA.
“Stanford was the catalyst,” Raymond-Tara said.
Raymond-Tara was Wie’s manager through most of Wie’s time at Stanford. She saw the maturation as Wie worked her way through school, graduating with a communications degree in 2012.
“Michelle chose to live in the dorms,” said Raymond-Tara, who is now a senior vice president at AEG Worldwide. “Her first roommate was a snowboarder who didn’t really have any context for Michelle as a golfer. It was the perfect place for Michelle. She lived a normal life.
“There’s been criticism of Michelle’s parents, but they deserve credit for her going to school. They encouraged her to do that.”
By the way, Wie’s parents, B.J. and Bo, have moved back to Hawaii. They will continue to be around when she plays tournaments, because Michelle wants them around. She began taking charge of her career back when she graduated Stanford. While her parents' omnipresence has been the subject of controversy, Michelle's devotion to them has never wavered.
Wie’s support network includes her eclectic group of friends outside golf, people who help her keep the game in perspective. Her interests run deeper and wider than people know.
“I think that’s something people don’t really understand about Michelle,” Raymond-Tara said. “She’s an artist at heart, with an artist’s sensitivities. For people who feel things deeply, being in the public eye, for good or bad, that’s a challenge.
“I think that’s why I’m so proud of Michelle. She has found a way to deal with that. She has come to a point in her life where the things that used to get her down, she is able to make light of them, laugh about them, in a really healthy way.”
Wie acknowledges how important Stanford was to building on her life outside golf.
“It’s something I learned I needed to do over the years,” Wie said. “It came with the big downs in life.”
David Leadbetter, Wie’s swing coach, saw the respite college became for Wie’s psyche.
“I think the criticism she began to receive hit her quite hard when she was younger,” Leadbetter said. “She was built up in the media as this great young player, and then she was being criticized for being a horrible person, with horrible parents and a coach who was useless. It all affected her.
“I think if she hadn’t gone to college, things might have gotten quite troublesome. College helped her. She took charge of her life there. She came out more well-rounded, happier.”
Wie’s artwork and culinary interests are all part of a “real life,” providing balance to her professional interests.
"Michelle is so good at being regimented with her game and practice, to maximize how she performs," Lee said. "When she's at a tournament, her No. 1 priority and focus is golf.
“But she’s grounded herself really well with real relationships outside golf, with broader points of view in life. It’s not just golf that matters to her. It’s not her be-all, end-all.”
Wie chooses happiness
With 30th birthdays, there comes reflection.
For Wie, that isn’t as complicated as some fans might imagine.
Yes, Wie concedes, a lot more was expected of her as one of the greatest teen phenoms who ever played. Heck, she was a phenom before even becoming a teenager.
At 12, she qualified to play in her first LPGA event, the Takefuji Classic.
At 13, she shot 66 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and played her way into the final Sunday pairing with a chance to win a major championship.
At 14, she shot 68 in a PGA Tour event, missing the cut at the Sony Open by a single shot.
With all of that came crazy expectations, many fueled by the Wies themselves. Michelle talked openly as a wide-eyed prodigy about wanting to play on the PGA Tour and beat Tiger Woods.
While there was marketing genius in that, Wie became a lightning rod, the focus of intense scrutiny over every misstep in her journey.
At 30 now, Wie owns five LPGA titles, one of them a major championship, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open. There were folks in those early days who thought she would have won 55 LPGA titles by now and more majors than any woman in the history of the game.
The entire Wie camp has been blamed for her failing to reach that potential.
Her parents have been blasted for mismanaging her, Leadbetter for ruining a natural swing, her management team for failing to intervene. Through all of that and a barrage of neck, back, hip, knee, ankle and wrist injuries, she reaches her 30th year in life grateful for what the game has given her.
Yeah, genuinely grateful, she says. She has chosen gratefulness over bitterness in embracing the ups and downs in her career. She has used the word “grateful” a lot speaking to media the last few years.
“There have been times I’ve really been down about things, but I choose happiness,” Wie said. “I choose being happy.”
And while winning does make her happy, but it’s not all that makes her happy.
“Looking back, yes, I could have done more,” Wie said. “But, everyone could do more.”
Wie says her stumbles and injuries are all a part of who she is today.
“You will never live up to everyone’s expectations,” she said. “Trying to live up to your own are the hardest. At the end of the day, I am surrounded by people I love. I am grateful for that and the life I have. I have fun with the people I love, and that’s what matters most.”
Wie said she is proud of what she has achieved.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is graduating from Stanford,” she said. “Looking back, that seems like the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I won twice at Stanford while taking a full schedule of classes. I am proud of that, and, obviously, I’m proud of winning the U.S. Women’s Open, winning those other events and playing in all those Solheim Cups. I have some amazing memories of all that.”
Memories she is celebrating with the eclectic friends and family who help her choose to be happy.