Gilchrist worked with Michelle at the IMG/David Leadbetter Golf Academy from 2002 to 2004 - three years during which he became Michelle's coach, mentor, friend and, as he puts it, "a member of the family." Years of lessons, weeks on the road, hours in the car and lots of pressure at tournaments gave Gilchrist a pretty good idea of what Michelle is made of.
At their first meeting, back in February 2002, 12-year-old Michelle told him about her dream to one day play on the PGA Tour. "Sounds great," he replied. "But do you have what it takes?"
One look at her swing and he had his answer. "I watched her hit balls, and after the first swing I knew that she could do it," Gilchrist tells me. "I was standing there and I meant nothing to her - it was just the joy of looking at the target and making that swing. I've seen some of the world's best players, and I watched this girl at 12 years old swing a club, and it was like nothing I'd ever seen."
"Her mental side was so strong," Gilchrist recalls. "And her family values were so strong. They had such a good plan and were committed to the plan. They were also very persistent, and they were there every day working on her game. Her parents would come with her every day."
Every day? Yes, every day. "When she was 12 years old, the furthest they would stand from her was about three to four feet," Gilchrist says. "They were always there, making sure she was OK, she was happy, she was understanding what she was doing." Even now, one or both of Michelle's parents keep her company as she hits balls on the range, rolling balls back to her as she practices putting.
The Wies are famous for their closeness. Michelle's father, BJ, took more than a year off from his job as a professor at the University of Hawaii to travel with her. Being an only child, she gets the benefit of their full attention. Her parents keep her company at every single tournament, and even every practice.
That closeness is something Gilchrist doesn't see often, and he says it's a big factor in Wie success. "It's one thing to say you need to spend quality time with your kids, it's another thing doing it on a day-to-day basis. She feels so secure and loved and supported, in a positive way. And being around her parents, she was very mature. She thought very logically, like her parents. But she played like a child. That combination makes a Tiger Woods."
It's a tough thing, though, finding balance between work and family. Not all parents can put their own lives aside to be with their children. Gilchrist struggles with it himself; for a while, he recalls, he was spending more time with Michelle than he was with his own daughter, Caitlin, now 10.
"I get conflicted as a parent. I spend most of my time with other people's kids. At the end of the day you have to balance your life and make sure your kids understand that you support them and you're there for them, so they can be successful not just at the game of golf but the game of life," he says. "The only way you can do that is spending that quality time with them, getting to know them."
Now he gives Caitlin lessons, but he's discovered that he has to be careful. "Most of the time she wants to golf, she just wants to be with me. If I make that time unhappy, or scream at her, or say, 'Come on, you can do better,' so she doesn't enjoy it, she'll never play golf. I have to be sensitive to that and make sure that every minute she's enjoying it and that we're having fun together."
After 11 years of working at the Leadbetter Academy, Gilchrist left the Leadbetter Academy to make his mark as the director of golf at the International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head Island, S.C. Michelle, meanwhile, continues to train with Leadbetter - a decision Gilchrist supports.
"BJ and I both felt at that time that David would be the right person to take her from one level to the next. David brings not just his instruction but also the players that he teaches. She has practice rounds with Ernie Els, Sean O'Hair. These are all David's students. What a great opportunity for her."
What does Gilchrist think of Michelle's chances of making that all-important Tour cut this year?
"I think there's going to be so much pressure on her," he says slowly, in his South African accent. "There's too many people now giving her so much information. When I was with her, I only spoke when I thought it was necessary. But now she's got the best mental coach, the best physical coach, and the best technical teacher - all of them giving information, it just becomes overwhelming.
"She needs to spend time on her own, and think on her own. And that's going to take time. She's got to basically grow into a young woman and learn when to take information and when not to take information. It didn't take Vijay Singh one year to play on the PGA Tour and get where he is today. Look at Vijay Singh's background and how hard he's worked. He's won, what, 17 tournaments after the age of 40? Michelle Wie is still a puppy."
Now that he no longer spends weeks on the road with the Wies, Gilchrist has more time for his own family - his daughter, plus the 120 adopted kids he calls students.
"It's going to be pretty exciting watching what she's doing in the next five to six years," he says of Michelle. He has high hopes: "I still think she'll be the first woman to win on both tours. I still believe she has the game to win a major on both tours, not just a tournament. If she keeps it simple, and keeps a good team around her, she can manage it."
Does he miss working with Michelle? Absolutely, he says. "That's why I decided to spend that much time on the road with them - it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with someone of that ability and mindset. What I like to do is inspire people to live out their dreams. And I was a part of that."
February 27, 2006
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