Wie goes with the pros
Observers still marvel at her drive, both with a club and within herself
Michelle Wie was a soft-spoken sixth-grader when she won the premier women's amateur golf tournament in Hawaii.
Not a bad first step on the path to superstardom.
The 6-foot golfing prodigy takes the next step in her unprecedented journey today, six days before turning 16. She will announce that she is turning professional, becoming the richest female golfer in the world with multimillion-dollar endorsements.
At age 11, Wie became the youngest winner of the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, beating defending champion Bobbi Kokx by nine strokes.
"I still joke that I think I could've taken her when she was 9," said Kokx, a former player and coach at the University of Hawaii. "If you're going to come second to someone, why not Michelle Wie?"
Wie's golf instructor at the time, Casey Nakama, said he realized Wie's potential during that tournament.
"That's when we knew there was going to be something special here, at 11 years old," he said.
Special may be an understatement.
In just four years, Wie has already left her mark on the sport, proving she can play with the best in the world -- regardless of her age and gender.
"I'm dumbfounded by how she's taken the golf world," Nakama said.
A news conference is scheduled for 8 a.m. today at the Kahala Mandarin Oriental resort, a short drive away from Wie's home and Punahou School, where she will attend classes after the announcement.
"When I watch this thing on TV, absolutely, I'll feel lucky we were part of this whole thing," Nakama said.
He remembers when a well-mannered 9-year-old who had ambitions of becoming a tournament player enrolled at his school at Olomana Golf Links.
"She was just an average junior," Nakama said. "She was tall for her age, but she didn't have extraordinary ability at that time."
That soon changed.
Wie devoted most of her free time to practicing -- at least three hours a day after school and seven to eight hours every weekend.
"I've had a lot of juniors that had similar abilities, but none of them had the same drive as she did. I think that's the difference," Nakama said.
With her big, smooth, effortless swing, Wie was quickly outdriving older girls, not to mention many men. After a couple of years, Nakama introduced punch shots into the wind, hooks and fades.
"Normally, I have girls that can do that in high school and college -- but not at 11 or 12 years old," he said.
There was also another startling moment for Nakama at the 2002 Takefuji Classic, where 12-year-old Wie became the youngest player to earn a spot in an LPGA Tour event through a qualifier.
Wie was on the driving range comparing her shots, which were measuring up with the pros -- including Annika Sorenstam's. "At that point, I knew it was just a matter of experience," he said.
The Takefuji was the first of many pro events to come for Wie. She has played 24 times on the LPGA Tour, and hasn't missed a cut in the last two years.
She was runner-up at the LPGA Championship to Sorenstam in June, and tied for third at the Women's British Open in July. Both are majors on the LPGA Tour.
Had she taken prize money this year, Wie would have earned $640,870, enough to be 12th on the LPGA money list in just seven tournaments.
Wie has competed five times against the men, without making a cut -- three on the PGA Tour, once on the Nationwide Tour and once on the Canadian Tour.
Kokx, who was paired with Wie on the final day of the Jennie K., said she was impressed with the youngster's power, raw talent, focus, knowledge of the game and maturity, even at 11.
"What probably surprised me the most was her composure for the three days," said Kokx.
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GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Punahou School students Spencer Dung, left, Kelli Moy, Rachel Cote, Jeeter Ishida and Tim Steinmeier talked yesterday about campus-mate Michelle Wie.
Punahou kids unfazed at idea of millionaire peer
Michelle Wie will step onto the Punahou School campus today as a newly declared professional golfer likely to be a millionaire by homecoming.
Does that matter to any of her fellow students?
"No. I'm used to being around lots of ridiculously rich kids," said Jasmine Fisher, a fellow junior.
Wie, who turns 16 next week, will soon be able to pay her $13,775 annual tuition out of her own pocket, if she wants.
But to her fellow students she'll be the same poised yet reserved girl they see in class -- albeit a 6-footer who can out-drive many male professional golfers.
"It'll be no big difference. When we're on campus it doesn't matter who you are. You have your friends and go to classes," said Alysn Doyle.
To be sure, Wie is already treated differently, students say. Media organizations will occasionally film her on campus. There is talk that she doesn't sign her assignments because of the potential merchandising implications in this era of memorabilia run amuck.
There is some resentment, but also praise for how she juggles the pressure and still gets good grades.
"She's done tremendously in school. These classes aren't easy," said Alan Meier, who is in Wie's home-room class.
But while the media buzzes about her ascent to golfing's heights, all of that's old news on campus.
"She'll probably have a few more friends after this," sophomore Tim Steinmeier says, referring to Wie's impending payday. "But she was already kind of a star, so we're used to it. If anything, this will just make her more of one."
Punahou has had its share of famed alums -- Steve Case, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, actress Kelly Preston. But Wie is overtaking them all before even receiving her diploma.
The next challenge for Wie the student will be to maintain her focus in the classroom, but the omens look good, said Dr. Michael D'Andrea, a sports counselor who works with University of Hawaii teams.
"If you look at any of these teen sports phenoms, they don't just get by on athletic ability. It takes character, determination and mental toughness, and she appears to have all those things," he said.
Wie will be treated no differently by the school, said Punahou Communications Director Laurel Bowers Husain. Her coursework has involved steady on-site participation and "that's not going to change," she said.
But Husain admits the prospect of a self-made, 16-year-old millionaire on campus has prompted the school to take "steps that we feel are warranted" on security, declining to elaborate.
However Wie is treated, a number of students feel the real question is why Wie would continue school at all.
"I'd quit school and take the money," said sophomore Rachel Cote.