On Sunday June 22nd, 2014 I watched Michelle Wie hunch over a 25 foot birdie putt on the 71st hole of the U.S. Women’s Open. I started out observing from the couch but 25 feet later the ball was in the hole and I was on my feet, fists raised in triumph. Moments later she was hoisting the championship trophy and I was still smiling ear to ear. I’m a Michelle Wie fan and, like many, have watched her since she was a pre-teen. But I bet my experience with her is more personal than most.
Six days before she steadfastly drained that putt, a group of us were in the bleachers watching her play that very hole during a practice round. She dropped balls in various places around and on the green, then rehearsed a variety of bunker blasts, pitches and putts. Not far away were her constant companions, Mom, Bo and Dad, B.J. who noticed me in the bleachers when they approached the 18th green.
I met Michelle Wie and her parents more than a decade earlier. Michelle was 12 and teeing it up in the LPGA Takefuji Classic. Our Golf Channel group was on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu to broadcast the event and we had heard of the local phenom who had become the youngest ever to qualify for an LPGA event. We were putting together a feature on her for the broadcast and found her on the course during her practice round. Kay Cockerill would conduct the interview so she introduced herself to B.J. and Bo and then introduced me. I asked if we could spend a minute or two with their daughter for the piece and they were happy to oblige.
Michelle Wie was a lot like most 12 year old girls, a little giggly, gangly, goofy and 100 % adorable. But unlike most 12 year old girls she already had a tour quality golf swing. Kay had learned that earlier that year Michelle had spent some time with Sony Open champion Ernie Els and that’s the ice breaker Kay used to start the interview.
“Yeah he was great,” Michelle said through braces-covered teeth, “he called me The Big Wiesy, you know like he’s The Big Easy and he liked my swing so, yeah, he said I was The Big Wiesy,” then she giggled. Priceless, I thought, then after a few more questions we thanked Michelle and her parents and wished her well. She shot respectable rounds of 72 and 74 but missed the cut by 2 shots. That was the first time I met Michelle but not the last time our paths would cross.
The next year, as a 13 year old, Wie became the youngest winner in the 108 year history of the USGA’s adult championships when she captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links beating Virada Nirapathpongporn 1 Up at Ocean Hammock Golf Club. The very next week we saw her and her parents again, this time at the LPGA Shoprite Classic. She was also accompanied by her swing coach, Gary Gilchrist who, with cameras rolling, took us step by step through her fluid, powerful move. This time she made the cut shooting rounds of 71, 72 and 72 tying, among others, Liselotte Neuman, Pat Hurst and Karen Stupples. Her tie for 52nd was better than, again among others, Michelle McGann, Cristie Kerr and future Hall of Fame member Laura Davies. On the air and off our team agreed her future was not just bright, but brilliant. None of us could’ve imagined the long, winding, rocky road it would take.
Throughout the next decade I watched with interest, both on TV and in person, as Michelle Wie’s star continued to rise. On ESPN she almost made the cut on the PGA TOUR at the 2005 Sony Open in Hawaii. On Golf Channel’s air, with me calling the shots in the truck, she should have won the 2007 McDonald’s LPGA Championship as a 17 year old (she lost by a shot to the one and only Annika Sorenstam). I also watched her star tumble from the sky as she withdrew from the PGA TOUR’s John Deere Classic and struggled through stretches of bad play, bad breaks and bad press. But all the while she remained upbeat and her folks were always friendly and accessible when we found ourselves in the same place. One of those places was back at the Seaview Resort near Atlantic City, New Jersey when I drove down to watch a little golf. Walking my 7 month old Bernese Mountain Dog, along the outskirts of the course, during the Thursday Pro-Am I happened to run into Michelle’s group. Across the fairway, behind the ropes, was B.J. Wie who noticed me, waved, and headed over to say hello. Michelle and mom joined him and we spent a few minutes catching up while “The Big Wiesy” petted my pup. Through the years I even made the family Christmas card list.
Despite the constant second guessing from the “cheap seats” the Wie’s never wavered in the belief in their daughter and the plan the three of them had laid out for her career. I can safely assume nobody was more excited, euphoric and proud when that birdie putt dropped on June 22nd than Michelle’s parents. I’d also bet you dollars to doughnuts that nobody felt more vindicated either. But Michelle, B.J. and Bo stood firm on the higher ground and never uttered an “I told you so”. If you know them at all then you know they never would.
As I said, I am an unabashed fan, have been since the day I met her at the Waikoloa Beach Resort in 2002 and I still believe, even with everything she has already accomplished, that her best golf lies ahead. I know for certain I’ll be watching.
Keith Hirshland’s experience has taken him all across the country, covering sport’s most famous athletes and television’s most interesting and charismatic personalities. Having worked at both the local affiliate and national network levels, Hirshland was on hand for the beginning stages of ESPN2 and one of the first forty people hired at the Golf Channel when the world’s first niche sports channel began its preparations in 1994. For years, he was part of the production team for golf’s nationally televised Skins Game. Hirshland has worked alongside sports television’s most iconic figures.
We recommend Keith’s fascinating memoir Cover Me Boys, featuring great behind-the-scenes stories from the creation of the Golf Channel and more than 30 years in the sports broadcasting business.
This was a fun, informative read. The author shared his love of family, the history in the early days of television, and his growing-up years as the son of a television pioneer.
Captivating memoir written by long time Golf Channel producer Keith Hirshland. He takes us through his life growing up in television & tells us behind the scene stories working first in local tv and then for ESPN & finally Golf Channel. The book is filled with both heartfelt, funny & spicy stories that only someone “in the know”would experience.