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Michelle Wie defends decision to mix college and golf

Former LPGA great Annika Sorenstam suggested last month that Michelle Wie was shortchanging women's golf by pursuing her degree at Stanford. 'Everyone's entitled to their own opinion,' Wie responds politely but firmly.

August 20, 2011|By Diane Pucin

It was criticism from one of the best in women's golf, and Michelle Wie was hurt.

Annika Sorenstam, who has retired from the LPGA, suggested last month during the U.S. Women's Open that Wie was shortchanging women's golf by pursuing her degree at Stanford.

"I think her focus, in my opinion, should be more on golf," Sorenstam said. "She's very distracted with school, doesn't really play as much full time as I thought she would. I think she needs to come out here and compete more regularly."

Sorenstam, who did praise Wie's potential and athletic ability, also said, "You wonder if she's mentally strong enough to finish at the top."

Wie, 21, who hopes to have her Stanford degree in communications by March, had not responded in an interview to that criticism until she was reached this week by The Times. And, while she was polite, Wie was also emphatic in defending how she has handled her golf career and educational ambitions.

"I think everyone's entitled to their own opinion," Wie said in a phone conversation. She was in Florida working with her swing coach, David Leadbetter, aiming to finish out the 2011 season strong.

"I'm making my own decisions, though, and going to Stanford was something I needed to do for myself. It was not a decision made for my golf career, it was really solely a decision I made. It's been one of the first things in my life I did for myself."

Wie is making her 13th appearance of the LPGA season this week at the Safeway Classic in North Plains, Ore. Her best finishes were second at the Honda LPGA Thailand in February and sixth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship the first weekend of April.

She stands 14th in the world rankings, behind Americans Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel.

Wie grew up largely in public, playing professional golf tournaments when she was 12, tabbed as the next big thing by the time she was 13, and dabbling with playing on the men's PGA Tour.

There were great expectations and some of them have not come to fruition.

Wie has won twice on the LPGA Tour, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico in 2009 and at the 2010 Canadian Women's Open, where she will defend her title next week. She also was in contention in two majors when she was barely a teenager — she finished fourth in the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship and second in the 2005 LPGA Championship — but she has yet to win one.

In comparison, the world's top-ranked golfer, Yani Tseng, a 22-year-old from Taiwan, has won five majors including two of the four this year. When she won the women's British Open this year, Tseng became the youngest male or female with five major titles. It is the kind of dominance once predicted for Wie.

"Growing up in the spotlight, playing tournaments when I was 12, I grew up a lot faster than maybe I had to," Wie said. "Going to college helped me be a normal 18-year-old and that was something I needed. I could keep training, but I needed something more to help me be well-rounded.

"I dreamed all my life about going to Stanford. My grandpa was a visiting professor; both my aunt and uncle went to Stanford. My dad, he didn't get into Stanford so that was kind of a competitive thing for me. I've been obsessing about going there since I was 4. It was never an option for me to not go to school."

Leadbetter, who has been working with Wie for almost seven years and has been with her through struggles with a wrist injury, said he was puzzled by Sorenstam's criticism.

"Everybody travels different routes," Leadbetter said. "As much as Michelle enjoys the game, she's not the same as, say, a Paula Creamer who eats, sleeps and drinks the game.

"Michelle can take time off and it doesn't bother her because she has other things in her life and, to some extent, that's quite refreshing."

Indeed, Wie spoke enthusiastically about her new puppy, Lola, a Pomeranian mix. She has worked on designing both clothes and her golf bag. Leadbetter said Wie is an excellent cook and Wie said she is addicted to the Food Network.

"What I find interesting is the way Michelle is talking now," Leadbetter said. "She can't wait for school to end. I think she has the hunger for golf now."

Leadbetter said he wished the world could have watched Wie on the practice range at this year's British Open.

"If you watched her hit the ball on the range and then go through a practice session," Leadbetter said, "it was absolutely awesome."

As is the case for golfers young and old, Leadbetter said putting is Wie's one shortcoming right now.

"Once she starts putting well," he said, "watch out."

Wie feels her best days on a golf course are ahead of her.

"I have more passion for the game now than I did when I was younger," she said. "Then it was something I was good at and just kind of did it because it was easy.

"Going through harder times has made me more motivated."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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