by Jeff Skinner
As the LPGA season heads into its last tournament this week the race for LPGA Player of the Year is about as close as it can get. Jiyai Shin and Lorena Ochoa will decide who wins the Player of the Year at the LPGA Tour Championship in Houston. Shin has already claimed The Rookie of the Year and Ochoa has won The Player of the Year for the last three years but there is another award the LPGA should be handing out this week. The LPGA should be giving The Comeback Player of the Year to Michelle Wie.
Here’s the thing: the LPGA doesn’t have a Comeback Player of the Year. They should start awarding one right now. Michelle Wie’s first career victory at The Lorena Ochoa Invitational certainly illustrates how far Wie has come after years of unfulfilled potential and soap opera dramas that plagued her professional career.
As difficult as it is to comprehend, the fact remains that Wie is still a rookie on tour and has only just turned twenty years old. How then, you may ask could she possibly be a Comeback Player of the Year. No golfer playing on or anywhere near The LPGA Tour has endured the ups and downs, the injuries, the emotional breakdowns and the horribly mismanaged career that Wie has lived through these past years.
Wie turned professional in 2005 when she turned sixteen and huge endorsement contracts and high expectations followed. Wie’s management team seemed more concerned with playing men’s tournaments and making her a celebrity then they did with making her a successful women’s golfer. She never tried to become a full fledged member of the LPGA, instead using sponsor’s exemptions to play the tour. She spent her time speaking of her goal to play in and win The Masters. The resentment from the female golfers grew as Wie showed up at each event with an entourage of handlers, managers, agents and of course her parents.
When she concentrated on playing LPGA events the results were less than spectacular. Each time that Wie would be near contention she always found a way to self-destruct. Her putter was notorious for letting her down and she could be counted on to slice a drive or hook an iron when the pressure was on. Until this year, her first as a card carrying tour member, the best she could manage was three seconds in 2005 and one second place finish in 2006. In 2008 her best finish was a tie for twelfth, hardly the resume that “the next big thing” was expected to have at that time in her career.
The 2007 season was emblematic of a career in free fall. Wie injured her wrist and probably kept playing when she shouldn’t have. In seven events her best finish was 19th and earned only $23,000 for the year with a scoring average near 77. She withdrew twice from tournaments, once in the middle of the round when she was on her was to shooting a score in the high eighties. The LPGA has a rule that forbids any non-member from playing in any future tournaments in that year if they shoot a score of 88 or higher. It was suspected that Wie’s team told her to withdraw, claiming injury, so she wouldn’t be banned from the tour for the rest of the year. To complicate matters, she was out practicing days later for the next tour event and drew criticism from the best player on tour at the time, Annika Sorenstam.
Wie has gone through more agents, caddies and handlers in the past years than most players do in a career. Last season when she decided to try and qualify for the LPGA through Q-School it signaled a new attitude from Wie and her team. She would play the LPGA as a member and try to be just one of the girls. After a career of bad decisions and self-inflicted wounds she was ready to play golf. Play professional golf and go to college full time, not an easy task. But for Wie the sheltered life of a college student would be a welcome change from the scathing, vicious spotlight that comes with carrying the weight of women’s golf.
Wie is enjoying her college life and has even had a social life away from golf and away from her parents. She has found time for a boyfriend and spends plenty of time studying and with friends. It sounds like she’s a regular kid, living a regular college life. At the same time her golf game has flourished.
This season has seen her scoring average drop to 70.5 (ninth best on tour), she has eight top ten finishes, finished second to Jiyai Shin in the Rookie of the Year race, earned close to a million dollars, led the US Team to a victory in The Solheim Cup and topped it off with her win here.
Considering where she has come from the past four seasons, Michelle Wie certainly has had a new beginning. Is it possible for a twenty year old rookie to have a career resurrection? If you saw Wie hit her bunker shot on the eighteenth hole on Sunday to kick in birdie range, you saw a girl take command of her career.
With this win Wie starts another phase of her career. The first few years were a disaster; this season has been her “coming out party.” At the Solheim Cup she was allowed to become one of the girls and rose to the occasion to carry the load for her team. After witnessing her play at The Cup it looked like she was ready to win her first tournament and she proved that thinking correct this week.
Michelle Wie is the biggest star in women’s golf and her win comes at an opportune time for the tour. It needs its biggest stars to be in the spotlight, it needs all the positive press it can get. Michelle Wie has started doing her share for the tour. Comeback Player of the Year? Why not, she certainly has had a long, difficult, emotional journey to get here. Now it’s up to her to keep it going.