She burst onto the golf scene as a 10-year-old when she became the youngest player to qualify for the United States Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
But when persistent injuries began to hamper Michelle Wie West’s ability to play the game she loved – she featured in just five Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour events in 2019, making the cut just once – thoughts of an early retirement flitted through her mind.
Those injury frustrations were counterpointed by personal happiness. Two months after her last appearance on the golf course, she married Golden State Warriors executive Jonnie West. And a few months later, Wie West found out she was pregnant.
Initially the prospect of becoming a mom cemented the idea of retirement.
“I never saw myself playing either pregnant or after I had a kid,” the 31-year-old Wie West told CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane.
Then Wie West discovered she was going to have a girl – the golfer gave birth to daughter Makenna Kamalei Yoona West on June 19 – and that “changed everything.”
“It just completely shifted my perspective. I was not expecting that to shift that drastically, but it really did,” said Wie West.
“Everything that I see now, it has changed. And playing wise, it’s definitely made me want to play again. When I go out and practice it’s definitely not as much as I used to be able to. I used to be able to practice day in and day out. But now, there’s like a week in between sometimes.
“It’s just all very unpredictable. But it’s made me want to come back and not just for myself, but for her and to kind of lead by example. And I think it’s so different when she can see YouTube videos and she can see all that. I can tell her about the things that I did. But I really just want to be able to show her and I hope I have that opportunity to do so.”
‘Women Worth Watching’
Since turning professional in 2005, Wie West has witnessed a sea-change in attitude towards women’s golf.
“I think it is changing. It’s that slow change. But every year I do feel like there is some progress being made,” she said.
However, despite women making up 40% of all participants in sports, it receives just 4% of sports media coverage.
Competition with men’s sport for prime-time TV slots has often resulted in women’s sport losing out on viewers, although broadcast audiences for major women’s competitions have grown over recent years.
However, for this week’s Women’s US Open which is set to kick off on Thursday – Wie West says she entered her name for but is not yet “comfortable flying” with her daughter yet, so pulled out – there is no other professional golf happening in the US, meaning all eyes are likely to be on Cypress Creek Course in Houston, Texas.
To be able to showcase their skills to a mainstream audience could be “fantastic” for women’s golf, according to Wie West.
“We’re in direct competition with the PGA Tour and they have a strong product. They always have,” the 2014 US Open winner said. “And when we go head-to-head against them, as of right now, it’s a little bit difficult.
“You always hear the argument why our purses are so much lower, it’s because our TV viewership is lower. And that’s a lot of time because we’re in direct competition with a product that has been historically bigger and better. And we never had a chance to shine.
“We never had the same TV slots. We’ve never had the same production cost, production value. So I think this way the USGA [United States’ Golf Association] is really taking charge of that.”
As well as enjoying family life, Wie West has being finding her feet as a broadcaster on golfing events.
She is also a passionate painter. In an 2014 interview with CNN, Wie West talked of her love of painting. Her artwork is dark, bold and often somber, with black figures and sinister skulls splattered across the canvasses. “My mom was like, ‘You were obsessed with skulls ever since you were a baby,’” she explained.
She has also become an ambassador for the United States’ Golf Association’s ‘Women Worth Watching’ campaign which aims to “shine a brighter light on the incredible athletes” that play in women’s championships.
“It’s just a reminder that the men are really fun to watch, but we are worth watching as well. There’s a lot of great stories that you should not just gloss it over because it’s a women’s sporting event. That there are so many great stories within this tournament, within our tour.
“It’s really cool for these young girls to be like, I want to play a sport that means something and is worth something. And it resonates not just in sports, but in corporations and the business world and entertainment that you know more about gender equality and that we are worth watching and we are worth equal.”
An early start
Wie West’s mother, Bo, was an amateur golf champion in South Korea and the 31-year-old credits her mom for introducing her to the game at an early age.
Having started playing golf at the age of four, it was in 2000 that Wie West became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, though that record was eventually surpassed eight years later by Allisen Corpuz.
At just 13 she became the youngest woman to make the cut at an LPGA tournament, the prestigious Kraft Nabisco Championship – one of the women’s majors.
And at the 2004 Sony Open she became only the fourth – and youngest – female to play on the men’s PGA Tour. She turned pro in 2005, just shy of her 16th birthday.
Since blossoming into the LPGA Tour’s biggest stars from such an early age – with five wins including her debut major victory in 2014 – Wie West has lived much of life in the public eye.
Despite the attention, Wie West says she’s fortunate she grew up with “pretty much no social media.”
“It was wild. When I was a kid, I mean, well, we had MySpace maybe and Facebook really wasn’t a thing and there certainly wasn’t Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. And I’m very fortunate of that because my parents really hid all of that from me, like all the articles that were written on me.”
If she had grown up nowadays and had “the same amount of attention and the same amount of scrutiny and same amount of articles written” about her, Wie West isn’t sure she would’ve achieved the same level as success she’s enjoyed.
“But back in the day, if your parents really want to hide news from you, they could. And I’m just really glad because in my own bubble, my own personal bubble, my life felt very normal. I still went to school full-time. I had my same friends that didn’t know anything about golf and that was the same case when I went to college as well, too.
“So I feel very fortunate that I grew up in that era where social media really wasn’t a thing. It’s tough as a kid. Once in a while, you accidentally stumble upon an article that maybe isn’t written favorable about you or your parents.”
Learning from others
Through her husband Jonnie, Wie West has formed a close friendship with three-time NBA champion Steph Curry.
Wie West coached Curry for his appearance in “The Match III” – a charity event aimed at raising funds to help leading US Black colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the two-time NBA MVP has offered advice to the Wie West’s on diaper changing.
Seeing how Curry, who has three children, is able to balance his basketball career and personal life has also helped Wie West believe she could juggle being a mom and continue playing golf professionally.
“The more players that I see that are able to balance that and balance it well, like him, it’s reassuring to me going back into work,” she explained. “He was I think one of the first people that Jonnie told.
“When he found out he was having a girl, I mean, he has four brothers. Having a girl, he was like: ‘Oh my God.’ Freaking out a little bit. Steph really grounded him and calmed him down.
“Any athlete that I talk to that really is able to balance being a parent and being an athlete, a professional athlete well, it just definitely is reassuring to me and someone that I look up to and someone that we always ask questions being like: ‘Oh, what do you do when this happens?’
“It’s great to have this community where I can lean on and learn from.”