Michelle Wie

By Steve Murray

Michelle Wie isn’t afraid of going head to head with the biggest names in golf again at this week’s Sony Open at Waialae Country Club. And the crowds don’t make her nervous. But she does admit to one fear.

“I’m terrified of clowns, always have been,” she told ESPN. “It’s called coulrophobia.”

Once again the kid is teaching grownups things they didn’t know.

While Hawaii has produced its share of celebrities in sports and entertainment, Wie’s celebrity outshines the others — and is as impressive as her skills. She has played in Europe, is nicknamed after one of the game’s best, Ernie Els — who this week will go for his third Sony title in a row — and has been interviewed for television in China.

Her game, her looks, her attitude and her dedication to a craft that makes grown men weep have ensured that this 15-year-old will never be an ordinary teen — or adult for that matter.

eBay lists 99 items up for bid bearing her likeness or signature. Most are trading cards that range in price from a few dollars to a set of 100 for $249.99. An autographed ball will set you back at least $119. There is even a song parody dedicated to the 6-foot-tall phenom based on Only the Lonely by The Motels.

eBay and parodies equal fame. Though it doesn’t seem to faze her too much.

“I’m pretty used to it now,” the Punahou sophomore tells MidWeek. “I just go on with it and basically go with the flow.”

For all intents and purposes, that’s who Wie seems to be: tall, famous, attractive, determined, confident and very unassuming. She has charmed interviewers by revealing her love for old films, saying modern comedies aren’t as good as the ones they used to make. That she’s “old school” and she loves Dumb and Dumber.

She even manages to turn heads when she’s the unwitting target of a ruse.

Wie spent last weekend at Kapalua, Maui, playing in the Mercedes Championships pro-am. While working on her game at the driving range beside PGA Tour stars like Tiger Woods and Els, she got face time on the Golf Channel when she was approached by an obscure-looking guy with a microphone, who asked if she knew who pro golfer Steve Flesch was. “Not really,” Wie said, then “Are you Steve Flesch?” Yes, he said. “Oh my god!” she shrieked as they both giggled, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry!”

The guy has won two PGA Tour tournaments the past two years and he’s still not as recognizable as a high school kid from Honolulu.

Many, looking from outside in, worry that money and fame sometimes comes with a dark side, especially for talent such as Wie.

Beverly Klass, who in 1967 qualified for the Ladies U.S. Open at the age of 10, knows something about the stress that fame can put on a child. She has said that as a youngster she could not separate Beverly the golfer from Beverly the person. That she had no balance in her life and that the support of her parents waffled from being great when she won to abusive when she lost.

Those close to Wie say that though she may share Klass’ talent, she doesn’t share her sad mental and physical challenges.

“Oh, I don’t worry about this lady at all,” says former First Hawaiian Bank vice chairman Lily Yao, a friend and mentor. “She is so capable. Just look at how young she is and how well she handles the media. Everything comes out so naturally because she’s such an intelligent young lady.”

Yao is convinced that Wie’s ability to handle herself is due to the foundation laid by her parents, B.J. and Bo.

“Her parents really brought her up right,” she says. “I think Michelle has the best of two worlds. She was born in the U.S., but her parents are from Korea. She has received an U.S. education and her parents have instilled Asian tradition and culture as well.”

This close family connection may also be the reason that she is able to handle such a busy schedule. The LPGA allows six tournament waivers a year while retaining amateur status, and Wie has taken advantage of each one. Yet another sticking point with critics.

Parents, coaches and even seasoned pros have criticized the Wie family for maybe pushing her too hard — something that Michelle totally discounts, saying all decisions are made as a family.

“They ask me if it’s all right if I want to play in it (a tournament) and I’m like oh yeah, it’s cool. And then we just go with a combined effort,” she explains. “Every day is like a family affair. We always work together, and every day they come to practice. It’s a lot of fun.”

Whatever the Wies are doing, it seems to be working.

By her own estimate, Michelle is an OK student. By that she means she’s one class shy of getting straight A’s. In fact, it seems her only real problem may be finding enough time to balance her two loves: golf and shopping.

“Oh, she loves to shop, I know that,” Yao laughs, sounding like any auntie slightly perplexed by a teenager’s priorities.

Fortunately for her parents, satisfying Michelle’s shopping jones is not as bad as it sounds. She says her style is unique, but leans on the cheap side.

“I like anything that is cute and not so expensive,” says the young trendsetter. “I have my own thing going.”

That thing includes large, dangly earrings.

But don’t think doing her own thing is as easy as it sounds. Though she says her friends are cool with her celebrity, she has at times tried to go unnoticed by hiding her appearance.

“I already tried that, wearing the hat and glasses, but that didn’t work,” she says. “They still recognize me. I guess it was my height or something.”

Of course, not being recognized can have its setbacks, as she told ESPN about one of the bad things about being so tall.

“I went to the movies and asked the cashier for one children’s ticket. She gave me a look and said, ‘That will be $8 please.’ That’s the adult price. I said, No, really, I’m a kid. She refused to believe me. And I didn’t have any I.D. to prove it.”

Such is the trappings of tall teendom.

As for boys, she says, “I don’t care.” She’s told other interviewers that boys are “a nuisance.”

One less thing for Mom and Dad to worry about, for now.

For all her determination to have a somewhat regular life, Wie has the focus and drive to clearly see her future and to not back away from it. Something most teenagers — and many adults — lack.

Yes, she wants to attend Stanford University (Tiger Woods’ alma mater) and yearns to play in the Masters, but this has more to do with her athletic and academic goals than trying to chase the man whose posters fill her walls.

“I don’t want to follow in anyone’s footsteps,” she says. “I want to make my own. There are a lot of colleges I’d like to go to, but Stanford is definitely my first choice. I just love the campus. I love the location because it’s right next to a shopping mall.”

A very large mall, as a matter of fact.

No word on whether the closeness of retail outlets affected Tiger Woods’ choice of educational institutions.

This week, Wie will try to improve on her finish in last year’s Sony Open. Her goal is to not only make the cut — she missed by one stoke last year — but to place in the top 20. And who would bet against her?

No matter how she finishes in the Sony Open or any other tournament she plays this year, Wie’s fame and influence will continue its growth. It should. She’s affected the game and those around it since middle school.

It was her talent as a 10-year-old that convinced Yao, Linda Johnson and Bev Kim to create the Hawaii State Women’s Golf Foundation, an organization that promotes women’s golf and provides stipends and scholarships for golfers who may not have the financial resources to chase their dreams.

Not bad for someone still too young to get a driver’s permit.

Now if she can only get over her fear of clowns.

 


 

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