26 June 2009

In Life And Golf, Traps Abound

Story from the Wall Street Journal

You think it's easy being a teen-age sports phenom? Just a few weeks before she became an Olympic champion in 1976, Dorothy Hamill confided to me that, for about three years in her teens, she used to throw up before every figure-skating competition. At the time we spoke she was 20 years old, was practicing six days a week, six hours a day, and was living 1,600 miles from her parents so that she could be with her coach. Fast forward 25 years: I'm watching television, and there's Dorothy Hamill -- doing a Vioxx pain-medication commercial.

We don't know -- maybe we don't want to know -- what being a champion as a kid does to you. For young Dorothy it was physical ailments. For aspiring young female gymnasts, with voices that sound like Munchkins, there is a delayed womanhood. And for Michelle Wie, who has been among the most famous women golfers in the world since she barely reached puberty and is now all of 19 years . . . well, there is an early version of faded glory. One can even earn a PGA golf degree. After phenomenal teenage wins and Tiger Woods-like hopes for greatness, Ms. Wie has missed cuts in major tournaments and, because of either missteps or bad manners, has earned the dislike of other players on the women's tour. Will she survive emotionally? More important to golf lovers, will she recover her game?

It is a question raised -- but not answered -- in "The Sure Thing." This well-researched, journalistic book by Eric Adelson is a little like playing two rounds in a day: Sometimes you get exhausted chasing the ball. But Mr. Adelson can be lyrical, too: "In a full swing, her torso twisted and turned as if on a swivel and her shoulders rotated around her spine like a propeller."

Would that this child's life had been so easy to describe. Of course, there are the parents -- not in the background but front and center. That's where they usually are when there's a budding superstar. Mr. Adelson describes how Michelle's parents, both born in South Korea, have been intimately involved in her career. Her mother, Hyun-Kyong, who goes by Bo, was a Korean amateur golf champion and was named Miss Korea in 1985; she then married Byung-Wook, or B.J., an engineer, and the couple moved in the late 1980s to Honolulu, where Michelle was born. B.J., a domineering presence during Michelle's career, uses his engineering background to plot the dips and quirks of the greens where his daughter will be putting.

Here is Michelle at age 11: "During the summer, I play 18 holes and then practice. I start at 9:30 a.m. and play until 8 p.m." At 12, she became the youngest player to qualify for the Ladies Professional Golf Association; at 13, the youngest to win a United States Golf Association tourney; and at 14, in 2004, Michelle became the youngest woman to enter a Professional Golfers Association tour event -- the teenage girl was playing against the men of the PGA.

Her appearance at the PGA's Sony Open in Hawaii, where she missed the cut by a stroke, was marked by perhaps the height of the Michelle Wie media frenzy. She could hit 300-yard drives, had the good looks of her beauty-queen mother, her father's long, lean frame, and a cheerful, outgoing personality. But, as indicated by the subtitle of Mr. Adelson's book -- "The Making and Unmaking of Golf Phenom Michelle Wie" -- it didn't last.

Her putting, never a strong point, worsened, and even her once-beautiful swing from the tee deteriorated. By 2006, Michelle was posting mediocre scores but still appearing in high-profile tournaments around the world, thanks to sponsor invitations. Mr. Adelson vividly describes how her seeming indifference to golf-course etiquette, her occasional rules infractions and her father's antics on courses while she plays have offended other golfers. The author also recounts how suspicions have been raised by varying explanations for a wrist injury that seemed to keep her from playing one day but not the next. Mr. Adelson observes that as Michelle's game declined, her "easy swing became as forced as her smile."

Michelle Wie turned pro at 16. She hasn't won anything since she was 13 years old. Yet she is earning a fortune -- not from her winnings, but from her endorsements. In 2007, she made the Forbes list of the highest earners under the age of 25. It placed her earnings at $19 million a year. It is the big money of professional golf that Mr. Adelson ultimately indicts for the "unmaking" of Michelle -- or, rather, it is her parent's thirst for it that he assails.

"The root cause of her decline, the force that contributed to all the factors that brought her down, was greed," he writes. Her parents pushed her into too many tournaments, too many promotional appearances, and meddled too much with her game and even her treatment of injuries, Mr. Adelson says, in pursuit of the riches and fame that their "money machine" daughter could provide. Still, as he notes, the great Annika Sorenstam -- who as far and away the best women's golfer during period of Ms. Wie's rise -- "didn't win her first LPGA tournament until she was 24. Michelle Wie doesn't turn 20 until October 2009."

With Michelle's golf career seeming to hang in the balance right now, I can't help but wonder whether she will fall victim to what has become an American syndrome: Build 'em up, tear 'em down. I'm not talking about celebrity of the Paris Hilton variety. We demonize those who have fallen from the straw pedestals we have constructed for them. And, of course, we forget that they are children. At least Michelle doesn't seem to have the chronic physical ailments of young gymnasts or ice skaters. Golf, apparently, does not mess up your growth. But it can mess with your hips, your wrists and -- as any adult golfer can tell you -- your head.

Mr. Eskenazi, a retired New York Times sportswriter and the author of 15 books, lectures on sports, media and society.

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