Somehow, Michelle Wie West is only 33. She was a grown adult when I was a kid and now the prodigy is only two years older than me. After a professional golf career of nearly two decades, Wie West is hanging up the clubs after this week’s U.S. Open. Wie West, who didn’t marry Kanye or Adam, but Golden State Warriors executive Jonnie West, son of NBA legend Jerry West, still has a polarizing legacy in sport. Wie West is still a household name, despite not having the on-course credentials to back that up. One all-time major championship in 2014 and five LPGA Tour victories, with her latest coming in March 2018, is all Wie West has to her name. That’s nothing to scoff at, but name recognition aside, nothing close to resembling a needle-mover either.
Around the same time that Freddy Adu popped onto the scene, the weird desire for a teenage superstar that could compete with adults was at an all-time high. And this was before the digital age of recruiting took off where seeing tomorrow’s superstars was possible and we could all wait to see them be old enough to drive a car and hopefully attend prom. Wie West was in an individual sport where going out to drink with teammates would no longer be a problem like it was for Adu. Golf has always been a sport just as much about mental stamina and focus as overall physical ability accentuating your best qualities while hiding your weaknesses. Wie West was more talented than Adu and had a better overall career. Any appearances for the United States men’s national team for Adu are negated by everything he’s done since 2014, where he decided playing for a second-tier Serbian league squad was the way to go. And this is coming from someone who would fanboy incredibly if I ever got to meet Adu, who just turned 34.
Wie West’s legacy doesn’t just align with Adu’s because of timing and age. It’s also because of expectations. Adu was marketed as the American Pelé, as if winning multiple World Cups was a reasonable expectation for an unproven high schooler, especially from a federation that had just won its first knockout-round game at a World Cup, but had never been truly close to having a hand on the championship. Wie West’s road to success was much more conceivable, with a ton of success before joining the LPGA. Her rise, including a second-place finish at both the Women’s British Open and Women’s PGA Championship in 2005, reached heights Adu’s never did. And Wie West did that just as all the praise was being heaped her way. Golf needed its next superstar too. Annika Sörenstam’s pace of consistently winning LPGA events was slowing down and Tiger Woods had carried that burden for too long by himself. Wie West was the perfect combo to bring golf to bigger masses.
While Wie West never lived up to her Hall of Fame prophecy, the rush at the beginning of her career, and after the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, proved she had best-in-the-sport potential, and for at least a little while, gave women’s golf the hero it wanted. Wie West’s last tournament comes with her ranked 1,132nd in the world, 1,129 spots below her highest all-time ranking that came after Wie West’s one major championship. That seismic drop in rankings came from playing fewer tournaments as she got older, including starting her life as a mother, giving birth to her daughter in June 2020. Wie West will best be remembered for her early days in the sport, with her seeming larger than life, while still a few years away from taking the SAT. That pressure must’ve been tremendous, and it’s worth asking the question if someone of her caliber came along now, with mounting-social media influence, name, image, and likeness as an option, what that would look like.
And the fair comparison there I feel is Carlos Alcaraz. The 20-year-old tennis phenom now doubt has already had more success before buying a legal drink in the United States than Wie West had her entire career. The support and fanfare for an athlete who steps on a major stage four times a year to battle the current goliaths would be appointment television. So Wie West’s legacy is the child of Adu and Sörenstam, and could have looked like what Alcaraz is about to unleash on the sports world for the next decade-plus. Yeah, I’ll call that weird.