By Cameron Song
The pioneer athlete who broke several gender barriers talks to us about her journey from teen phenom to major winner to media star.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we launched a series of articles and interviews with some of the most exciting women in sports. For Part III of our series, I had a chance to speak with golfing legend Michelle Wie West, whose athletic feats and accomplishments have an almost mythical quality. She broke gender barriers with her enormous talent, competing against (and beating) men at all levels and inspiring an entire generation of girls to play without limits.
Wie West grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and began playing golf at the age of four. She quickly excelled, beating her father (a 2 handicap) when she was seven. At age ten, she stood at 5’7, weighed 175 lbs, hit the ball 275 yards, shot 64 — and qualified for her first national event. When she turned twelve, she became the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event and, at age thirteen, became the youngest person to win the US Women’s Amateur Public Links. In the same year, she qualified for five out of six events on the LPGA. By the time she was fourteen, she was hitting the ball over 300 yards and became the fourth female ever to play a PGA Tour event, shooting 68 – the lowest round ever by a woman. She missed the cut by one shot but beat 47 men, including 4 Major winners. After that, she qualified for the US Amateur Public Links and became the first female golfer to qualify for a USGA national men’s tournament, losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion. Labeled as “the female Tiger Woods,” Michelle was a fixture on ESPN, Sports Illustrated and was featured on 60 Minutes.
Although she captured the world’s imagination with her talents as a teenager, the breadth of what she’s accomplished as an adult might be more impressive. Never bound by convention, she decided to turn pro at age sixteen, playing part-time on the tour when most people her age were trying to make it to college. She then enrolled at Stanford, where she did not play college golf (not eligible) but earned a degree while competing on tour. She was a successful pro, winning five titles, including a major (2014 US Open), but had a wide set of interests beyond golf. She has been a brand ambassador for Nike for years, worked on CBS Sports’ golf coverage, and has been an active investor in start-ups (LA Golf, Sportsbox.ai, Tonal). Recently, she launched a podcast, Golf, Mostly with Hally Leadbetter. She has also been a vocal advocate for women’s golf and sports and has never been afraid to speak her mind. In 2019 she married Jonnie West (son of NBA legend Jerry West) and had her daughter, Makenna, in 2020. She decided to retire from professional golf in May, but remains an important presence in the sport.
Cameron: Thank you for joining – this is such an honor. You grew up playing all kinds of sports and decided to focus on golf, where you were clearly head and shoulders above not only other girls, but boys and then later, men. In many ways, you are the best case scenario for Title IX – someone who took equal access to a sport and then rewrote all expectations for what a woman can do. Although you changed the game, what’s an area you’d like to see more progress in the next 50 years for women’s sports?
Michelle Wie: Title IX opened up the possibilities for women’s teams to be made and for access for women and girls to play sports – now we just need equal funding. Yes, we’ve created opportunities for us to play, but if you saw pictures of the NCAA women’s basketball gym versus the men’s gym for example, you can see there is a gross difference in funding. That definitely has an impact on the rest of these girls’ lives – whether it’s in sports or normal life. Title IX is great but it’s also given us the mindset that we should be grateful for any sort of scraps that we can get and that should never be the case. So I think the next step is equal funding.
So much of the attention early in your career was about your physical gifts and the curiosity the media had for your talent. How did you deal with that attention at such a young age?
Michelle Wie: Going to school really helped. My friends not knowing a single thing about golf really helped. I grew up in a different time period – we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook. You wouldn’t know I was in the media unless you opened up a newspaper or actually looked it up on Google and searched for your name. For me, my life was pretty normal. I went to a normal school, my friends didn’t know who I was outside of there, so I was grateful for that aspect. I feel for a lot of kids these days who grow up in the limelight, it’s just really difficult. There were a lot of comments when I was growing up, but I could filter them out alot easier.
Cameron: When you look back on your career, what is something you would tell your daughter Makenna about what you learned from the experience?
Michelle Wie: I would tell her to find her own path. If it’s strange and nobody’s ever done it before, don’t be afraid to try it.
Cameron: Normally people attend college and then go pro. You were a pro who went to college. I read that you might have burned out of golf if you had not gone to Stanford. What did that experience give you to add years to your career?
Michelle Wie: Going to school for anyone – not only do you get a higher education, but it’s a crucial four years of your life. You can make mistakes, you are away from your parents for the first time, but in an organized setting. You’re adulting, but you’re not. It’s something I felt I needed to go through because it was something my parents were adamant about. They told me I could turn pro but I needed to focus on my education. If that wasn’t the case I couldn’t go pro. It was all kind of part of the negotiation. I loved going to school. I loved hanging out with my friends and having that normalcy. Being a professional and going to Stanford – now thinking back on it, it sounds really crazy. I can understand why people were thinking I was crazy, but when I was going through it I learned alot about myself. I had an amazing time and was just really grateful for all of the experiences that I had.
Cameron: Although you didn’t play college golf at Stanford, you seemed to always enjoy playing team golf for the US in the Solheim Cup. Do you wish team golf was a bigger part of the professional tours? Why aren’t there any mixed team events with women and men?
Michelle Wie: I would love to see that. Two of our players on the LPGA Tour are playing in the QBE Shootout with the men. I am hearing rumors that might become a mixed team event which would be great. I would love to see the President’s Cup become a mixed team event. I love team events because I missed out on playing high school and college golf. I kind of packed all four years of high school and college golf into one of those weeks, so I always loved it.
Cameron: Beyond the course, you impacted the game in other ways. Your Nike clothes were always the most fashionable and allowed women to look like athletes. How involved were you in the direction the brand took with golf attire?
Michelle Wie: I was very involved. When I was talking to the team I felt like we could make a statement in terms of how golf is perceived. Golf is a sport, so why not wear athletic attire? Why are we wearing really stuffy cotton polo shirts and khaki pants that don’t stretch? We should be pushing the envelope as far as what it means to be golf attire. It was a lot of fun changing the way people think about golf clothes. Bringing the high top Nike Blazer shoe, bringing a basketball shoe into the game. It was a lot of fun. I look forward to doing more.
Cameron: On the subject of fashion, the tie-dye hoodie you created for the “Hoodie for Golf” campaign was a huge hit, went viral and generated support for causes you believe in. What did you take away from that experience and will you launch more campaigns?
Michelle Wie: What I took away is that everyone wants to support women’s sports. They were anxious to support women’s sports. I got a flood of DMs from men. The large and XLs were getting sold out first because it was the men that were excited to represent the women in their lives. The desire to support women’s sports is out there, more than people think. I think if we keep doing things like this it will show the networks that people are wanting to watch women’s sports. It’s not just something where corporations are looking at this as a charity case or that they are wasting money on us. There is a real want and desire.
You seem to be a natural on the media side of the business. How much training did you have to do to get ready to be in the studio?
Michelle Wie: Not that much training to be honest. I felt really comfortable talking about something that I knew so well. The first time I did it, I definitely watched a video and learned what the mannerisms were and tried to stop saying “you know” and other filler words. I leaned on the producers to tell me when I was doing that so I would stop doing it. It was a lot of fun talking about the things I enjoy talking about.
Cameron: You are friends with Steph Curry, who is a pretty good golfer. Do you ever think you would’ve been a good basketball player? You have the height!
Michelle Wie: No not at all. I was awful. I broke my pinkie playing basketball back in the day, so that was it.
Cameron: You’ve launched a podcast with your best friend Hally Leadbetter. You guys seem like you’re having a lot of fun doing it. Golf is always looked at as such a serious sport. What’s a way you’re hoping to change that view?
Michelle Wie: Yeah our podcast Golf, Mostly is a podcast where we talk about golf, but a lot of our guests are not in golf. It’s been fun talking to them about what their perception of the game was before they started playing golf. That’s what we want to make. Golf is a fun game and we don’t take ourselves seriously. We want more people to play the game, so we try to approach the game in a really fun and light manner. It’s been a lot of fun so far.
Cameron: Finally, when other professional athletes retire, they play golf to scratch their competitive itch. When golfers retire, what do they do? Are you finally able to try new sports or hobbies?
Michelle Wie: I want to try snowboarding because I could never do that. I play a lot of pickleball now.