CITY OF INDUSTRY, Calif.» Here, where the smog meets the snow on the San Gabriel Mountains, the first face you see at the Kia Classic is Hawaii’s Michelle Wie, in a life-size picture at the driveway.
After she tees off in today’s opening round, she will walk past her Kia Sorento on the Industry Hills Country Club course that hasn’t seen an LPGA event in nearly 30 years. Her custom-made White Tiger Kia Soul, with the claw marks down the side, is up at Stanford.
In this corner of Los Angeles County, where she can order from a Korean menu at McDonald’s, she and Nike will finalize what she will wear at all four majors this year. You, too, can wear the clothes Wie wears, maybe even before she wears them next week at the year’s first major. You can also try out her new Nike shoes, which allow you to wear any of four colors just by replacing the leather under the laces.
Wie’s 2011 domestic debut — she couldn’t play last week because she was taking finals — comes in her comfort zone. Her 21-year-old fingerprints are all over this tournament.
Kia is one of her major sponsors and responsible for Wie’s breezy "Hi, Boys" commercial.
"I can’t ever live that down," the Punahou grad says with a grin.
Sunday, she sat at the Clippers-Phoenix game with Clippers owner Donald Sterling, watching corporate colleague Blake Griffin do everything but dunk over a Kia Optima, which he saved for the NBA All-Star Game. Wie hyped the Kia Classic on TV and radio at halftime. and talked story with Griffin after.
"It’s mind-blowing he could jump over a car," Wie said. "I have trouble jumping over a tee marker."
Tuesday, there was a Golf Channel interview and pairing party. But first, a 20-minute photo shoot. The only direction Wie needed the entire time was "tilt your chin up."
Yesterday, she teed off with Kia Motors America President Byung Mo Ahn and three other pro-am teammates, all wearing identical Nike windshirts. Some 40 fans — two in UH caps — and two TV cameras followed while cell phone cameras constantly clicke
In the Kia Skybox after, Wie announced that the pink golf bag she and Kia created for Breast Awareness Month back in October would be signed, sealed and delivered for an online auction at LPGA.com. Proceeds benefit this area’s Keep A Breast Foundation.
"I’m just hoping that people like the bag and they really want it," Wie said, "and there’s going to be a war."
Her new bag, with her new logo and original artwork, will be on display this week. It is filled with Nike clubs and a McDonald’s water bottle. Wie wears an Omega watch and Zengyro energy bands, powered by holograms.
"Michelle really feels those have enhanced her performance and stability and balance," says her agent, IMG’s Nickole Raymond. "She put it on the week before she won in Canada, so obviously she’s a huge fan. They are coming on as a website partner. We’ll launch next week."
Her other major sponsor is Sime Darby, a Malaysian conglomerate that also sponsors an LPGA tournament. But beginning today, Wie will be all about golf. That is, of course, why she is here … everywhere.
The part-time student/part-time professional golfer is ranked 11th in the world. This tournament, one of just a handful of full-field U.S. events, attracted 77 of the top 80 players.
Kia and everybody else invested in the Wie World want her to win, more. It would be good for them, the LPGA and the Big Wiesy.
"She’s the full package," says IMG’s Dave Haggith. "She’s got this astounding game. She’s also got a personality and everything else that gives her that star quality, much along the line of Tiger. She’s a little out of the ordinary, especially when you go back to the beginning of the story and see a little girl at 10 doing these things. It’s really created an aura that’s stayed on."
Through the good times — a USGA championship at 13 and near misses at the U.S. Open and Sony Open in Hawaii among them — and the bad — all that time lost to growing pains, and pains that were just plain physical.
Through it all, Wie has never been boring.
"It’s human nature to like to see the rise and fall," Raymond says. "People like to build people up and then, when they fall, you want to cheer them back on because you want to see them go up again. That’s what Michelle has done, which is highly unique. She was very highly touted in the beginning and then had some years where she struggled, but she persevered, which is something I don’t think a lot of people thought she would do.
"She could have just thrown in the towel. She had enough money. She could have just said I’m going to school, I’m having fun, I don’t need this criticism. I think she deserves a lot of respect for the fact that she’s worked at it, perfected her game, got back out there, held her chin up high and has gone back and proven she’s a champion. She’s going to prove it time and time again. I really feel as though she has the right mind-set for success. She’s in a good place, a healthy place mentally."
There will be more time for "integrating Wie’s personality into the partnership" when the golf is done. Dealer parties can wait and so can Motor Speedway ride-arounds at 175 mph, apparel reviews, Nike conventions.
McDonald’s will have time later to send their "Asian-American brand ambassador" to educational workshops. There, she talks to students, often in Asian-American neighborhoods, about having a balance between academics and outside activities.
It is a natural fit for one of the world’s most recognized athletes, who, next March, will graduate from Stanford after just five years of part-time status.
This week, at the Kia Classic, almost everything seems like a natural fit.
"It’s really cool," Wie says. "It feels like home."