Dynamic Duo: Michelle Wie West and Hally Leadbetter’s Friendship for the Ages
It wasn’t exactly a friendship at first, because it’s difficult to be equals when one kid worships the ground the other walks on. That’s how it was for Hally Leadbetter and Michelle Wie West when the latter began getting golf instruction from David Leadbetter, the renowned teacher who is Hally’s dad.
When they first met over Thanksgiving dinner, Michelle was 13, traveling from Hawaii to Florida for lessons, and Hally was 10. There’s a cute picture taken of them in 2005 in which Wie, at nearly 6 feet tall, looks like a grown woman with a small child standing next to her. The top of Leadbetter’s head barely reaches Wie’s shoulders, and the height difference was symbolic, given their stations in life. Wie was an amateur golf star on a path to a career on the LPGA Tour and a U.S. Women’s Open title, while Leadbetter was something of a wallflower who loved horses, not golf, and was rendered nearly speechless whenever this statuesque teen from the islands came near her.
“I idolized Michelle,” Leadbetter says now, wide-eyed and breaking into her throaty laugh. “I still do.”
Imagine, then, how the admiration only grew when Hally eventually started playing golf and got Michelle’s stylish hand-me-down outfits. “I looked like an LPGA player on the range, even if I didn’t play like one,” Leadbetter jokes.
A WELL-ROUNDED FRIENDSHIP
As they grew, the friendship blossomed. They shared the ups and downs of their lives, of which there were many. Leadbetter eventually played NCAA Division II golf after overcoming an eating disorder in high school. Wie turned pro at 15, excelled often, but sometimes felt as if she would melt under the white-hot spotlight of her fame. Their bond only grew stronger in the adversity.
And now they are grown women who are in the primes of their lives, still connected by golf, but also by so much more.
The retired golfer and five-time LPGA winner now is known as Michelle Wie West, after the 33-year-old’s marriage in 2019 to Jonnie West, an NBA executive and son of Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West. In 2020, they welcomed the birth of their daughter, Makenna.
Leadbetter, 30, has become a multi-platform media personality and is engaged to be married in 2024 to fiancé Billy Candler. She has a legitimately hilarious golf comedy skit show, “Better Off with Hally Leadbetter,” on GolfPass, plays rounds with celebrities for Golf Digest content, is a prominent figure in USGA videos and has done commentary and interviews for CBS and PGA Tour Live. Most recently, Leadbetter covered matches from the fairways of St Andrews’ Old Course for Golf Channel’s broadcast of the Walker Cup.
If that isn’t enough work to make even Ryan Seacrest’s head spin, Leadbetter and Wie West finally found a way to truly work together. They live in the same city, Los Angeles, and in late 2022 debuted the podcast “Golf, Mostly,” with two seasons produced and an impressive list of guests that includes athletes Venus Williams, Lance Armstrong, Chloe Kim, J.R. Smith and Mardy Fish, rapper Macklemore, comedians Jake Triplett and Trey Kennedy, and a few golfers, including Tony Finau and wife Alayna, Tom Kim, Rose Zhang, Bryson DeChambeau and, of course, Hally’s dad, without whom they’d have never known each other.
“Michelle has a great Rolodex,” Leadbetter says.
The beautiful thing for both women is that their unpretentious chats — held mostly from big, comfy couches in a small studio, where they don oversized sweatshirts and sometimes (gasp) don’t wear makeup — frequently have little to do with golf. They come off as if attending a casual dinner party, where the walls come down and the women and their guests dish, comically, on love, fashion, balancing work and family life.
GOLF IS GOLF, LIFE IS LIFE
Michelle gets needled for her current passion for pickleball and sometimes tells self-deprecating stories — including the time she didn’t recognize the Masters logo at a golf gathering. There are things we know about Wie West because of the podcast: She had the putting yips in her career three times; she never wore all white; she didn’t wear pink on Fridays; if she was playing poorly she’d change how she wrote down 4s on her scorecard; she never used scissors before a tournament cut; and during college she’d enlarge punctuation marks on a paper to make it seem longer.
“Oh my god, Michelle!” Leadbetter said, reacting to that last admission. “At Stanford?!”
Other subjects are far more serious — most notably, mental health, since both women, as well as their guests, have suffered with issues of anxiety and self-doubt.
Truth be told, Wie West is far more revealing in the podcast about her life in golf and beyond than she ever was in tournament press conferences. In the episode with Fish, who spoke of once pulling out of the U.S. Open of tennis due to anxiety, Wie West disclosed that she was conditioned to accept nothing less than unmitigated success. Anything less was failure.
“Golf is such a binary sport,” she said. “Either you go out and play well or you play poorly. And I felt like when I played bad and came home, I wasn’t allowed to smile. I wasn’t allowed to go out to dinner and have fun with my friends. It took me a really long time to understand the concept that golf is golf and life is life. That was very detrimental to me; it truly got to the point where it affected my mood.”
“Growing up as athletes,” she continued, “we were supposed to be tough, invincible. We were supposed to bleed when we practiced. I’m just happy nowadays it’s acceptable to be strong and be weak all at the same time. I think it’s important for our younger generation to understand that you can be happy after a bad round, and it doesn’t mean you care less about the sport. You just need to put things in a box and leave them where they lie.”
Leadbetter said she grew up with negative body image issues after being bullied about her weight. That led, she said, to suffering from anorexia between the ages of 13 and 16. “It was a really, really hard time for me,” she recalled. “I remember what kid said it, and the exact moment that I decided I needed to lose a bunch of weight. I really wanted to be a popular girl in school, and I wasn’t.”
That trauma also created a deep sense of empathy that now comes across when Leadbetter is on camera or on the couch doing interviews. She is forthright but not pushy, pleasant but not gushy. And Leadbetter’s deep understanding of golf rivals any commentator who has not played on tour.
“I’ve been told that I seem to make people more comfortable on camera, and I appreciate that,” Leadbetter says. “I honestly try to do that when there are no cameras, too. I know what it’s like to feel like an outcast or not liked. I want people to know that I’m not going to let them fall, that I’m going to hold their hand.”
To have the podcast as a forum to influence a younger generation of women and men, be they aspiring pro golfers or weekend warriors, is an enjoyable and rewarding gig, both women say. While Leadbetter travels the world on her various assignments, Wie West says she’s become a happy homebody. She can rattle off about a dozen vegetables she’s growing in her garden, and she has embraced being a mom to Makenna, though on the podcast with E! News correspondent Erin Lim as the guest, Wie West was strikingly candid with her fellow mom about feeling somewhat lost after the baby was born.
“Being a professional athlete or being on the air, you have producers, trainers, coaches and everything is about me — until the baby came along,” Wie West said. “And then in a split second it wasn’t about me anymore. I don’t know if it was post-partum stuff or whatever, but that was really hard to digest. There are times when you feel like you’re drowning.”
Wie West said that led her to seek out experiences that are the most meaningful to her. She joined the LPGA Board of Directors in 2022, to have a greater voice about the future of the tour, and this year became the host of an LPGA tournament, the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National GC. Fittingly, the event was won by rising star Rose Zhang, a Stanford grad who has been mentored by Wie West.
As for playing golf, Wie West spent much of the spring and summer preparing to compete in what she deemed her farewell event — the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach. Asked in June if she’d have been grinding on the range if not for the tournament, she blurted out, “No!” She smiled and turned to Leadbetter, “Did I say that too fast?”
On that Friday afternoon when the second round at Pebble Beach was drawing to a close, hundreds of fans circled the 18th green despite gloomy clouds that had gathered. Wie West was not going to make the cut, and this would be her final walk. Inside the ropes were a number of Michelle’s friends and family, including her parents and Makenna, fast asleep in her stroller.
Leadbetter was there, too, and as soon as Wie West stepped out of the scoring trailer, the tears streamed down Hally’s face. She seemed more emotional than anyone in the entourage. “I think it was just the fact that I’m so proud of her,” Leadbetter said. “She’s accomplished so much in golf, but she is living life on her own terms, and I think that’s something we can all learn from Michelle. She is a fantastic mom, a wonderful business partner, and this is the start of an exciting new chapter for her.”
That can be said for both friends, and the odds are extremely good they’re going to write many of those stories together.