Michelle Wie West was ready to retire. Then she got mad

  • >> Karen Crouse, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-04 09:59:42 BdST

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Michelle Wie during the Sybase Classic in Clifton, NJ, on Friday, May 15, 2009. The New York Times

From a distance approximating one of her prodigious drives, Michelle Wie West caught a glimpse of her infant daughter in the arms of her mother, who was standing on a hotel balcony. It was Wie West’s first competitive tournament as a working mom, and at the sight of her child, whom she felt guilty about leaving, she burst into tears.

“And then I hit in the water,” Wie West said with a laugh, recalling her “meltdown,” as she described it, during her opening 9-over-par 81 at the Kia Classic near San Diego in March.

Wie West, 31, who is competing in the US Women’s Open, which begins Thursday at the Olympic Club, has missed the cut in all three of her starts this season. The impenetrable focus that carried her to five LPGA titles, including the 2014 US Open, has been diffused by marriage, motherhood and a motivation to deepen the conversation about, and commitment to, women in sports.

Reams of copy have been written about Wie West since she became, at 10, the youngest player to qualify for the US Women’s Public Links and announced her intentions to grow up to play on the LPGA and PGA Tours. She turned pro before her 16th birthday and contended deep into the final rounds of her first three LPGA major tournaments that first year, establishing a bar that proved hard to clear. She won her first tournament in 2009 at the age of 20, then three more before she won the US Open at Pinehurst. But she has only won once since, the HSBC Women’s World Championship in 2018.

And so, in 2019, Wie West could not have imagined herself here. Chronic wrist injuries precipitated a two-year layoff that she presumed would become permanent when she became pregnant a few months after her 2019 wedding to Jonnie West, the director of basketball operations for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. She told her husband that she was done playing.

“I thought there was no chance of coming back,” said Wie West. She had opportunities to move into the broadcasting booth, and motherhood seemed like a natural pivot point. “But my husband was like, ‘No, no, just think it through,’” she said.

When Wie West learned that she was having a daughter, her feelings about a comeback shifted for reasons she struggled to articulate. And then in February, a month before her official return, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, appeared on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast and asked if he could share a “funny story” about Rush Limbaugh, who had recently died.

Giuliani recalled how Limbaugh had been perturbed by the photographers trailing them in a 2014 pro-am in which they were grouped with Wie West. Giuliani said that the “gorgeous” Wie West’s putting stance was attracting the photographers, who, he said, “were trying to take pictures of her panties.”

Giuliani’s comments crystallised Wie West’s reasons for a comeback, irking her into action. After 25 years of speaking into a microphone as a matter of duty, Wie West realized that she actually had a lot to say, and a return to competition would give her the platform to address inequities and ignorance that she hadn’t been aware of as a teenage phenom.

More affirmation came this week as she watched Naomi Osaka, another young nonwhite woman who is a star in a white-majority sport, quit the French Open rather than participate in news conferences she said were damaging to her mental health.

“I thought what Naomi did this past week was incredibly brave,” said Wie West, who described her own experience with anxiety:

“It’s tough, especially when you’re not doing well or there’s a lot more to life than your game. There could be other stuff happening. It is sometimes crippling at times, but I’m really proud of athletes taking charge of their mental health and making it a priority. More conversations need to be had about that.”

Wie West is willing to wade into difficult conversations because she wants her daughter, Makenna Kamalei Yoona West, who will celebrate her first birthday on June 19, to grow up in a world where women athletes are seen and heard, and enjoy equal billing with men.

In the past year she has revealed a different side of herself — as a leader in the drive for equity and change. With his words, Giuliani triggered Wie West’s election to the LPGA board of directors and her commitment to speak up more.

“She texts me and calls me all the time,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, a two-time tour winner who is now the LPGA chief communications and tour operations officer. “It’s great. I’ve had more conversations with her in the last two years than in her whole time on tour.”

Wie West has sought out other athletes who fought for change, including Renee Powell, one of the first African American members of the LPGA, and tennis icon Billie Jean King, who described how her threat to boycott the US Open in 1973 as the defending women’s champion spurred the tournament to become the first Grand Slam event to pay men and women equally for their victories. Wie West has compared notes with WNBA standout and players’ association president, Nneka Ogwumike, whose undergraduate years at Stanford overlapped with hers.

The conversations inspired Wie West to float the idea of forming an inter-sport council that could address the pay disparity and unequal resources between men’s and women’s sports.

In 2019, the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the playing calendar, 73 women’s players exceeded $50,000 in on-course earnings. That same season on the PGA Tour, the 73rd-highest earner made $1,553,149.

The golfer who wins this Sunday will take home $1 million, from $5.5 million, the largest purse on the tour. The winner of the men’s US Open at Torrey Pines this month will earn $2.25 million from a $12.5 million purse.

Recently Wie West was reminded by her father-in-law, Jerry West, who works for the Los Angeles Clippers as a consultant, that the big money in men’s sports didn’t materialise overnight.

West, the second overall pick in the 1960 draft, told her that he didn’t have an agent when he turned pro and for the duration of his first contract he held an offseason job in community relations for Great Western Savings to supplement his NBA income.

“He told me the NBA was not something that they considered a full-time profession,” said Wie West. Like king tides, the wave that will lift all paychecks requires a perfect storm of leadership, talent, exposure, performances, marketing — to be aligned.

With her 300-yard drives and fearless forays into men’s tournaments, a teenage Wie West was positioned as the game changer, the charismatic player who could take the LPGA Tour that Nancy Lopez popularized and deliver it, Tiger Woods-like, to a mainstream audience.

Wie West was driving coverage of the women’s game before she was old enough to get behind the wheel of a car. So she was surprised when she stumbled onto the statistic recently that women are afforded roughly 4% of sports media coverage.

Looking back, Wie West said, “I definitely can remember thinking, ‘Ugh, another interview. Stop talking about me.’”

As a teen, she was criticized by other golfers for hogging the spotlight, when in reality, she was attracting eyeballs that otherwise would have ignored women’s golf. Her visibility gained women’s golf new fans — and Wie West more critics. Dottie Pepper, a two-time major winner, described her in a 2007 essay published in Sports Illustrated as “overexposed, miserable and manipulated.”

“I’m pretty honoured that people chose to care about me,” Wie West said, “but it definitely was tough at times because I went through a lot of lows, really never a moment where I could just go under the radar.”

Giuliani’s comments yanked Wie West out of her maternity leave and back into the spotlight. When she learned of his vulgar remarks, what she had lived and what she had learned recently about women’s place in the sports firmament coalesced into unadulterated outrage.

Wie West said she started to tap out a social media response, “but I was so riled up, everything I was saying wasn’t really coming out right.”

Her husband gently suggested that she carefully consider her message. “You have a chance to say something really important here,” Jonnie said he told her.

In the response she drafted with input from her husband and posted to Twitter, Wie West said, in part, “What this person should have remembered from that day was the fact that I shot 64 and beat every male golfer in the field leading our team to victory.”

When writer Eric Adelson saw Giuliani’s comments, he recalled the men’s US Open sectional in 2006, and following a 16-year-old Wie, who was the youngest competitor and only woman trying to earn a spot in the men’s field at Winged Foot.

As he wrote three years later in the book, “The Sure Thing: The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wie,” he overheard an exchange between two college-aged men. One said, “Pretty swing,” to which the other responded with a crude comment about her physique.

Speaking recently by telephone, Adelson said, “I remember cringing when I first heard that. I thought it was gross, and then when I heard what Giuliani said, I thought it was extremely gross.”

He applauded Wie West’s response. “It just shows that she grew up,” Adelson said, “but a lot of other people didn’t.”

A grown-up Wie West knows how to turn her anger into agency. She pitched a cotton candy blue-and-pink tie-dye hoodie with the LPGA logo to tour executive Roberta Bowman, who loved the idea. The limited-edition sweatshirts sold out after they were worn by Warriors players, and to Wie West’s surprised delight, the large and extra large sizes were snatched up first.

Men clothed as billboards for the women’s game instead of ogling the women athletes. For Wie West, the victories don’t come much bigger than that.

 

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