CHASKA, MINNESOTA | It was a side we’ve never seen, at least not in public. Throughout her career in the spotlight – an odyssey that began an astonishing 17 years ago when she was only 12 years old – Michelle Wie always has hovered between stoic and ebullient, at least in front of the cameras. The clichés were always predictable – “Just having fun out there,” “Really happy to be out competing,” “Learning every day,” “Taking what my body gives me,” “Giving it my best,” – even when everyone knew that the truth was far more grim. Whether it was an attempt to keep a professional distance between herself and the public, or positive self-talk that she hoped might lead to better outcomes, Wie always put a happy face on a heaping mountain of disappointments. Sometimes it made her look shallow or disingenuous, which she is neither. But she always looked forward, glass half full.
Not this week. On Thursday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Wie’s first competitive round since mid-April when she missed the cut in Hawaii by a mile, the 29-year-old looked lost and wounded. By the second hole of the first round at Hazeltine she was icing her right wrist. That’s the same wrist on which she had surgery last year to repair a fracture and an impinged nerve. Most of her misses were push-cuts that left her gashing shots out of thick rough. The more fairways she missed, the most she rubbed and worked on her wrist.
Wie shot 84. Afterward, to her credit, she came out and answered questions.
“As a father on tour you pray that all these players, when it’s over, at least get to choose their own terms. Maybe this is the end but maybe not.” – Mike Whan
“It was kind of foolish to think that I would shoot really well, just hitting golf balls last week,” Wie said. “It’s a tough golf course but I’m really, really happy that I played. Just feeling a lot of joy just being out there, and, you know, competing again. It’s going to take time. I’ve just got to be patient.”
That was typical Wie: as happy a face as you could possibly put on a miserable round. But then she let the public in. Her eyes welled and her voice cracked. She said, “It’s hard. It’s just one of those situations where I’m not, you know, I’m not entirely sure how much more I have left in me so even on the bad days I’m just like trying to take time to enjoy it.” That’s when the emotions flowed. She put her hands over her mouth as her shoulders shook. “But it’s tough,” she finally managed to get out before quickly turning away.
“Painful,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said on Friday morning when asked about seeing Wie in such obvious distress. “As a father on tour you pray that all these players, when it’s over, at least get to choose their own terms.
“Maybe this is the end but maybe not. I’ve seen players shoot 12 over. I know what that does to them. If I shoot a bad round I’m in a bad mood for the rest of the day and I don’t get paid to do it.
“Michelle has been dealing with injury now for a long time, maybe since I met her in 2009. I watched her hold up the (U.S. Women’s Open) trophy at Pinehurst and she was covered in flex tape. So, I’m not sure she’s been pain-free for a long time. So, yesterday, I was thinking to myself, I hope this is just a bad round on a tough day. If her comments about ‘how much more I have in me’ is because she’s saying ‘I’m not sure how much longer my wrist will let me play,’ that would be a shame.
“I’ve talked a lot of former athletes that stopped playing, not because they were ready but because they had to. I’m hoping that’s not the case. I hope that she takes enough rest or whatever that she needs. But, yeah, it’s hard to watch. She’s tough and stoic. I’ve never seen that side of her. It’s hard to see.”
All athletes battle the darkness after the spotlight goes out. Former PGA Tour player and Golf Channel analyst Arron Oberholser has an especially good perspective on the Wie situation. Oberholser had the same injury as Wie, only in his left hand. His was caused by a shot from the high grass left of the 18th green during the Byron Nelson Classic. He hit the back of the ball but a clump of grass stopped the club cold. He immediately knew something was wrong. A few years later, he was out of the game.
“When I hear about her having collagen shots, which is what I’ve heard she’s done in the past to try to regrow some of the cartilage between the carpal bones, there are red flags that go off in my mind immediately because of what happened to me back in 2007,” Oberholser said on Friday morning. “Unfortunately, what she’s dealing with, it’s not going to go away.”
Oberholser tried everything. Four surgeries, injections, therapy, creams.
“It’s all voodoo, none of it works,” he said.
After everything, Oberholser tried one last time to make it back through Web.com Finals. By the second week he couldn’t hit a wedge 80 yards and couldn’t take a swing without pain.
“I can’t play more than two days in a row without anti-inflammatories,” he said. “That’s what she’s looking at.
“It’s going to be difficult for her to manage this, to be able to get enough reps to be competitive, to be able to compete at the highest level. She might be able to play at some point, like I do right now, hit-and-giggle golf. Honestly, that’s the cruelest thing … your brain is saying, ‘I can do it. I want to do it.’ But the body is not willing to cooperate. That’s the cruelest thing for Michelle, and I think you saw it when she broke down. That’s the frustration level we reach as players when we’re dealing with stuff like this.”
Wie’s tears might also have been because she sees the darkness ahead and doesn’t like the view.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever overcome the darkness,” Oberholser said. “Because you feel so unfinished. There is no closure. Michelle might find closure because she has a U.S. Women’s Open (title). She can say, ‘Hey, I won the biggest event there is on the women’s side.’ She could probably find more closure than I could. There are still days when it’s tough for me. I hope this isn’t the end for her. I hope she can find something. But the signs that I see, I saw the same trend with the amount of events (played) after my surgeries.
“I remember the doctor looking me square in the eyes after my fourth surgery and saying, ‘Arron, I don’t know how many swings you have left but there is a number. And when that number is up, it’s up.’ That was very sobering. And Michelle is there. She’s on a ball count for the rest of her days.”
No one knows what Wie’s ball count is. But on Friday, she took one full swing on the range before turning back to her physiologist for a massage on the wrist and some prescription cream. The first shot she hit out of the rough, a short pitch from left of the first green, left her flexing her fingers in and out as if working out a cramp. The ice bag came out again on the third tee. She shot 41 on the front nine looking for all the world like a baseball player who had been hit in the hand by a pitch. She didn’t want to let on that it hurt. But everyone who saw her knew.
This may or may not be the last time we see Michelle Wie for a while. But no matter when, or if we see her again in competition, the question will remain: How many shots does the 29-year-old former phenom have left?
Michelle Wie walks on the 16th green during the second round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She shot 84-82 and missed the cut. Photo: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
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