I was delighted last weekend to see Hannah Green, a 22-year old from Perth, become the third Australian woman, after Jan Stephenson and Karrie Webb, to win a major. She got up and down from a bunker at the last at Hazeltine to squeeze home by one shot, ahead of the multi-talented Sung Hyun Park, and lift the trophy at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.This was her first professional victory on the big stage and heartwarming as it always is to see someone at the start of their career, it can be heartbreaking to witness what seems to be the end of another player’s career – particularly when it is not a departure or timing of said player’s choosing. I am referring, of course, to Michelle Wie, who missed the cut in the Women’s PGA with scores of 84, 82 after yet another attempted comeback from injury. We have got so used to Michelle’s litany of injuries over the years that it is easy to think that, yet again, she simply tried to come back too early. This time, however, her post-round interview contained the emotional admission, “I’m not entirely sure how much more I have left in me.” I found that chilling from a player who has always been refreshingly honest and lacking in excuses throughout her not inconsiderable time in the spotlight. Let’s just have a quick recap of the golfing career of one of the most watchable players of the modern era. By the time I first set eyes on the six feet, 14-year old from Hawaii in the 2004 Curtis Cup at Formby she was already famous. She had Monday-qualified for an LPGA event at the age of 12 and had won the USGA Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at the age of 13. At 14 she had played on the PGA Tour in the Sony Open in Hawaii, missing the cut by one shot. I’d never seen her like. The sound of the ball fizzing off the clubface was something I hadn’t hitherto heard in the women’s game and I remember Tom Lehman saying she had the finest swing he’d ever seen. Ernie Els played a practice round that week with her in Hawaii, helped her with her putting and christened her “The Big Weasy”, a derivation of his own nickname of “The Big Easy.” She seemed to have it all.
On her 16th birthday she turned professional, by which time she had already played in 22 women’s professional events, gathering up a handful of top ten finishes in majors. She signed sponsorship deals with Nike and Sony, reportedly worth in excess of $10 million per year. What could possibly go wrong?For the next six and a half years Michelle was a part-time professional golfer, part-time student. The minimum age requirement for LPGA membership at that time was 18 and she and her family decided against petitioning for a special exemption, so for her first three years as a pro golfer she was not a member of any tour, simply playing on invitations and sponsor’s exemptions. At the end of 2008 Michelle went to the LPGA qualifying school and won her playing rights for the 2009 season. She was packing a lot into her life as she was also playing some events on the PGA Tour, again by invitation, and there was also the little matter of enrolling at Stanford University.
Against this backdrop was an almost endless stream of criticism of Michelle and, in particular, her parents. They were too controlling; they were making these ridiculous decisions allowing and encouraging her to play in men’s events and suffer repeated, high-profile failures; they interfered with her coaches; they made it impossible for any professional caddy to do his job properly. No one had been down this particular road at such a young age and every man, woman and dog had an opinion and didn’t hesitate to offer their advice. The criticisms were endless and as a young player she was repeatedly questioned and asked to validate any and every decision. She handled it all with class, dignity and a maturity beyond her years.In the spring of 2012 Michelle graduated from Stanford with a degree in communications and has devoted herself entirely to golf since then. But the cracks had already appeared as regards her injuries. It started in 2007 when she fell when out jogging and broke her left wrist. Since then she has battled with pain and injury in her hip, knee, finger and currently it is her right wrist that is the problem, requiring surgery last year which has led to an intermittent and interrupted schedule this year. She has arthritis in both wrists. Add to that respiratory infections, appendicitis and a raft of food allergies and you begin to marvel that she HAS actually recorded five wins on the LPGA tour, including that most precious major, the 2014 US Open, not forgetting five Solheim Cup appearances. She has spent an inordinate amount of time in the last dozen years rehabbing and grinding on a daily basis to get back out on tour – where she loves to be. And last week, finally, her composure slipped, revealing to us her anguish that this may indeed be the curtain call to a career that had promised so much, but ultimately hasn’t delivered on the scale we all felt was possible.
Michelle will be 30 in October. She is a mere five months younger than Rory McIlroy, another child prodigy who also grew up in a bit of a goldfish bowl. They are both famous, both have tasted major victory, both have made millions, never needing to work again, and they both love the game of golf. Yet how different their future landscapes look. Was she badly advised or is it largely the luck of the draw as to what life hands you? Michelle’s attitude and work ethic have been faultless and she has proved an inspiration to many. If this does, indeed, signal the end of her career, it will be devastating for her because golf is what she loves passionately. She will be fine, of course. She is talented, clever, resourceful, wealthy……and engaged. And all too accustomed to overcoming setbacks.
It is a lesson to us all, however, to seize the day and make the most of every opportunity we have. You never know what’s round the corner.