- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

Unfortunately, there’s no “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising an Athletic Prodigy.” The parents of such golden children have to pretty much fend for themselves. How hard should I push? Who’s the best coach for my kid? When should being a teenager take precedence over being a phenomenon? There are no easy answers to any of those questions.

The fact that B.J. Wie isn’t the Bagger Vance of caddies doesn’t mean he isn’t a good father. The fact that his precocious 13-year-old, Michelle, breached a few rules of etiquette at the U.S. Women’s Open — after which he claimed, erroneously, that one of his daughter’s playing partners had bumped her — doesn’t make him some kind of Deranged Golf Dad.

I read about Michelle and B.J. Wie’s not so excellent adventures at the Open, and I thought of all those singers, young and old, who suddenly forget the words to the national anthem. Stuff happens when you’ve got thousands of sets of eyes watching your every waggle, especially when you’re 13. Of course, the analogy may not be entirely appropriate, because it seems the Wies didn’t know all the words to begin with — or rather, hadn’t learned the entire code of golf course conduct. Thou shalt not walk in a player’s putting line, even beyond the hole. That was a new one for B.J. and Michelle Wie.

And there are other lessons to be learned, no doubt. Michelle just finished the eighth grade, for goodness sake. She’s in the Lizzie McGuire phase of life. As for her father, we’re not talking about a club pro here, we’re talking about a professor of tourism management at the University of Hawaii. B.J. is just as much of a babe in the woods as his daughter.

The poor guy. Most of us are hard-pressed just to get our children to soccer practice once a week. Imagine what it would be like to discover that your kid was capable of hitting 300-yard drives. What would you do about it — after you freaked out, I mean?

There’s a terrific movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” that deals with just this subject. The wunderkind is a chess player, not a golfer, but the issues are the same. How much is too much? At what point should a parent simply let go?

The dad — a sportswriter, as it turns out — has a memorable exchange with a teacher who wonders if all the time spent on chess isn’t hurting the child’s studies. “He’s better at this than I’ve ever been at anything in my life,” he tells her, not the least bit nicely. “He’s better at this than you’ll ever be — at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, maybe we will have something to talk about.”

What do you do when your kid has a gift? What do you do when your kid is better at something than you’ve ever been at anything in your life? And how do you keep that gift from being more a burden than a blessing? If you’re B.J. Wie, you turn your daughter over to Gary Gilchrist, director of golf at the renowned David Leadbetter Academy. But maybe you caddy for her in tournaments, too — not because you want to bask in the glow of her celebrity (as so many quickly assume), but because you want to be there for her, because she’s 13 and you want to protect her.

Risky business, that. It opens you up to all kinds of ridicule — about your motives, your fitness as a parent, your I.Q. Sports fans, as B.J. has discovered, are experts at raising other people’s children. They always know what’s best for Tiger or Jennifer or LeBron … and now Michelle.

Whenever one of these phenoms hits the national stage, it’s almost as if America adopts him (or her). We’re fascinated by such talent at such an early age — but there may be more to it than that. As the chess coach admits to the father in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “I spent my life trying to play like [Fischer]. Most of these [chess players] have. But we’re like forgers. We’re competent fakes. … You want to know what I want. I’ll tell you what I want. I want back what Bobby Fischer took with him when he disappeared.”

Tiger Woods isn’t Jack Nicklaus any more than Jack Nicklaus was Arnie Palmer. They’re all distinct entities. But Tiger is a reasonable approximation of Jack. He gives us back what Jack took with him when he strode off to Seniorland. And Michelle Wie might give us back, who, Nancy Lopez? Kathy Whitworth? Mickey Wright?

If there’s a villain in all this, it isn’t B.J. Wie, it’s Danielle Ammaccapane. What’s her deal, anyway? Here’s a 37-year-old veteran pro, the mother of toddler herself, and she’s laying into a middle-schooler in the scoring tent for not conducting herself like an adult? Or was the real source of her anger the bottom line on her scorecard — 74 to the middle-schooler’s 73?

“How can she treat a little girl like that?” B.J. Wie asked.

Ah, but there’s the problem. She’s a little girl, but in some ways she isn’t a little girl.

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