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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 4, 2010

Flashing that winning smile

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Hawai‘i’s Michelle Wie is pretty much the same young lady we all knew, except now she can finally count herself among the winners on the LPGA Tour.


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Michelle Wie looks the same and sounds the same. She touts the virtues of Hawai'i beaches and L&L plate lunches to some of her 13,000 Twitter followers. She wanted Onesies — adult "footy" pajamas — with spaceships on them for Christmas. Her meditation far from the madness of golf remains art in any form, from creating custom animal and Stanford football hoodies to spraypainting and putting "studs"/thumbtacks in her black and florescent pink hightop Nikes.

Friends still help ease the pressure of being 20 and — with Tiger Woods on a shocking and sad golf sabbatical — arguably the most compelling face in the sport right now.

Her Stanford classmates offer her friendship, a place to hang out and tons of texts to keep her mind off golf and her 3.4 GPA. Her Punahou 2007 classmates made sure she took a detour from the airport to the beach before she even went home last week, after arriving in Hawai'i for the holidays. Four joined her as "Santa's helpers" the next day when Wie and Walmart donated some $20,000 in toys and supplies to Ronald McDonald House Charities of Hawai'i.

"I hope I don't have a white beard or big belly," Wie joked with the kids at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children. The setting was so poignant and timing so perfect it would not be a surprise to see her representing at least one of the corporations involved in the future. Days earlier, she had helped kids in her grandfather's hometown in South Korea.

She looks the same and sounds the same, but since Nov. 15, when she won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico, Wie is not the same. For the first time since she was 13, and in her 66th LPGA start, Wie finally won.

"It makes me want to work harder and makes me more excited for next year," she said. "It felt so good winning one time so it would be fun to do it over and over again."

Winning might not sound like a big deal. LPGA Hall of Famer Betsy King needed 200 tournaments to get her first win. But this is Wie the world is talking about, and has been since she popped into golf's consciousness a decade ago.

She draws a crowd at qualifiers and in quaint towns that host USGA championships. She came with the magical and graceful "Big Wiesy" swing, blasting 300-yard drives before she hit the terrible teens. She dreams of playing in the Masters and has the audacity to try.

Wie turned pro in 2005 and celebrated her 16th birthday a week later with many millions in endorsement money. One of the texts that came after she won was from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, simply saying, "We should play again."

There had been nearly 100 professional and amateur tournaments since she became the youngest in the 108-year history of the USGA to win an "adult" championship. She went where no golfer had been before in her teenage years, and was often amazing. But for all her hype and spectacular shots and setbacks, she had not won again. Everyone, even Rice, wanted to know when she would.

"It was not a question I could answer, but it was a legitimate question," said Wie, who again plans to play about 20 tournaments this year. "I was asking myself when are you going to win. Hopefully, the second one will come sooner, a lot sooner. I knew it was going to happen. I had faith in myself. I knew I worked hard enough."

When it did come, the day Wie had "just a really chill attitude" and "down the stretch everything just felt kind of right," Lorena Ochoa, the world's top-ranked female golfer, handed her the trophy. Many saw it as a passing of the torch, to a young woman finally fulfilling her immense promise and, because it was Wie, now ready to become a struggling game's saviour.

It is a lot to ask. Wie inspires that and hasn't backed away from the challenge since she was a child. She is not about to now.

She balances the immense expectations with as normal a life as someone who has been a teenage millionaire/athletic prodigy can muster. She is currently addicted to all kinds of art (see michellewie.com). She is proud she was never home-schooled or sent to an academy. She covets her friendships. She will pursue her communications major the way she pursued that win when the winter quarter starts today at Stanford, taking 20 credits.

Her Hawaiian vacation did not include golf clubs. Those flew straight from her last tournament in Dubai, where she finished second, to Stanford. This trip was all about family and friends, the people who have kept her sane through all the insanity.

And God knows this ride has been crazy.

"Every single time something happens, it trumps the last one," Wie said. "There have been a lot of moments. I guess I'm most proud of never giving up and believing in myself again. That's always the hardest task — getting confidence in myself, being able to go forward even when things are not going right."

Now, in a Tiger-free golf zone and with that long-awaited win, Wie might hold the game in her not-yet-legal hands. As always, what comes next will be Wie-markable.

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