A Golf Prodigy Grows Up, And Goes All The Way To The Top

Jul 9, 2014
Originally published on July 9, 2014 8:31 am

Child actors are invariably distinguished by being cute as a button, being naturals at acting and having an aggressive parent. Few of them can sustain their stardom as they grow up. Athletic prodigies, however, often continue succeeding smoothly into adulthood — look no further than LeBron James or Bryce Harper.

Since girls mature earlier than boys, many female athletes become very good very early and then stay the course. This goes right on back to Suzanne Lenglen and Sonja Henie, the first famous female athletes of almost a century ago — teenage champions who kept dominating their sports. (Both, by the way, had pushy fathers, too.)

This brings us to Michelle Wie, who appeared to be following more in the path of child actor than child athlete. She was so good so young, so tall, and directed by her father, she was something of a sideshow — a young girl competing against grown men.

But then Wie went into an eclipse, abetted by the fact that she became a full-time student at Stanford. All sorts of golfers passed her, and a young American named Lexi Thompson became, in effect, what Wie was supposed to have been. It was Thompson who won her first LPGA tournament at 16 and who won her first major this year while still only 19.

And Wie? She was 11th in the world at just 17, but as recently as last year she was ranked 61st. Then suddenly, at age 24, she has burst forth as the woman the child was supposed to grow up to be. Sixth in the world, she won her first major three weeks ago — the U.S. Open. So, those embers of early fame are glowing again, and with the apparent age-induced decline of Serena Williams, Wie may well now be the world's best-known female athlete.

Meanwhile, men's golf remains desperate to produce any young champion with sustained star power. Apparently the PGA will be depending on Tiger Woods for its hype even when he's 60 years old and playing best-ball foursomes down at the country club. Absent the toothless Tiger, Wie may now be the best-known golfer in the world.

Click on the audio link above to hear Frank Deford's commentary.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The world of golf is awaiting the start of the Women's British Open. That comes tomorrow and all eyes will be on Michelle Wie. The 24-year-old golfer was a child prodigy. And commentator Frank Deford says she took her time getting to the top.

FRANK DEFORD: Child actors are invariably distinguished by being cute as a button, being natural at acting and having an aggressive parent. Few of them continue their stardom as they grow up, except, most prominently, for Leonardo DiCaprio who proceeded effortlessly from being teenage-cutesy to manly-sexy. Athletic prodigies, however, often go on smoothly succeeding into maturity. Look no further than LeBron James or Bryce Harper. Moreover, since girls mature earlier than boys, the best young female athletes often become very good very early and then still stay the course. This goes right on back to Suzanne Lenglen and Sonja Henie, the first most famous female athletes of almost a century ago - teenage champions who kept dominating their sports. And both, by the way, had pushy fathers too, which started that trend. And this brings us to Michelle Wie, who appeared to be following more the path of a child actor than an athletic phenom. She was so good, so young, so tall. And, directed by her father, was soon something of a sideshow - a girl competing against men. But then Wie went into an eclipse - one that was abetted by the fact that she became an accomplished full-time student at Stanford. All sorts of golfers passed her, especially as Asian players began to dominate the American tour. And then a young American named Lexi Thompson became, in effect, what Michelle Wie was supposed to have become. It was Thompson, who won her first LPGA tournament at the callow age of 16, who won her first major this year while still only 19. Wie - she was 11th in the world when she was 17. But as recently as last year, she was ranked 61st. But suddenly at age 24, she has burst forth as the woman the child was supposed to grow up to be - sixth in the world. She won her first major three weeks ago - the U.S. Open. So those embers of early fame are glowing again. And with the apparent age-induced decline of Serena Williams, Wie may well be the world's best-known female athlete. Meanwhile, men's golf remains desperate to produce any young champion with sustained star power. Apparently, the PGA will be depending on Tiger Woods for its hype even when he's 60 years old and playing best-ball foursomes down at the country club. And absent the toothless Tiger, Michelle Wie may now well be the best-known golfer in the world. So most famous woman athlete, most famous golfer, potentially the best female golfer and on top of that she is an ethnic idol. Certainly the most prominent Asian-American athlete ever. And that's especially important to Asian-Americans because they are so often stereotyped as uncoordinated nerds. And, then too, Michelle Wie is very pretty, although, of course, not quite as pretty as Leo DiCaprio.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear Frank Deford every Wednesday here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.