Posing was nothing new. Muni He, the 20-year-old who won the 2019 Q-Series presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina with eight consecutive under-par rounds, has always felt at home in front of a camera. Her photogenic nature and model looks allowed He to build an enormous social media following even before she turned pro. But the pose she struck on the weekend at Pinehurst No.9 has nothing to do with her Instagram fans, which exceed a quarter million. Late on Friday afternoon, He stopped behind the 18th green for a photo with a young girl, no more than six, who had watched her take a commanding lead in the 144-hole event.
“So cute,” He said. “It's so special to see someone so young be so into golf. I think a lot of us girls out here, we all started golf at that age so it's cool to see. It brings back a lot of good memories.”
He was born in mainland China but moved to Vancouver, British Columbia and then to San Diego, California when she was in middle school. She turned pro after her freshman season at the University of Southern California, spent one successful year on the Symetra Tour and qualified through Q-Series in 2018 for the LPGA Tour as a 2019 rookie. But the transition to the LPGA Tour wasn’t so simple. She made only eight cuts and never broke into the top-25 in any event.
That part of the story is not unusual. Plenty of rookies struggle. Many bounce back and forth between the LPGA Tour and Symetra Tour before finding their footing and having successful careers. But few do it with the spotlight or the criticism that found He in 2019.
She is what the online generation calls an “influencer,” a person who is famous for being famous, who has spun a following out of the air and, as such, receives enormous corporate attention. Not only does He’s social media presence exceed all but a handful for golfers, men or women, from anywhere in the world, she was even the focus of a Golf Channel ad for the network’s #GolfConnects campaign, all before carding her first top-20 finish.
This led to inevitable snipes. “She cares more about her looks than her golf game. She should get out of that bikini and hit some wedge shots. She’s not worthy of the attention she’s taking away from ‘real’ players.” Of course, no one said those things to her face. No one who said them actually knew her.
“It's so funny, because this is something that I've talked about a lot with my friends and family and people who know me,” He said in Pinehurst. “Before I really had Instagram or had social media, I was just like every other junior golfer. Golf was the priority in my life. I competed a lot. Then once I started to gain a social media following, there were some doubts, definitely. I felt like people were saying, ‘Oh, you know, just judging off Instagram, she's not really a professional golfer.’ It can get to me. But at the end of the day, as long as I know what's going on and how hard I'm working, that's all that matters. “I don't really get much of that anymore. Regardless of some of my bad results earlier this year, I do think I've had some rounds this year that shut a lot of the haters down.”
Certainly the performance at Q-Series should quiet the critics. He finished the two weeks at 21-under par and led the second week wire-to-wire.
“I definitely missed a lot of cuts at the beginning of the year,” she said. “It was really challenging for me mentally. Now that I've kind of overcome that and have it a little more figured out, I look back and I'm like, ‘Okay, I'm really glad I went through that.’ I needed to go through it. I needed that learning curve to know what's best for me.
“Obviously going through it at the time was really, really challenging. But, it's a lot more than just playing good golf. There is so much more that comes with the lifestyle of being an LPGA Tour golfer. It's more than other people's expectations of you. You can really get into your own head. You can really judge yourself when you don't have a good round or a good tournament. You can get into a downward spiral. But that’s just part of the process. Once I learned to accept that, it started to get better.”
She looked like a grizzled veteran in Pinehurst, shooting 9-under the first week and 12-under the second. He opened her second week at Pinehurst No.9 with a 65 and never looked back, closing out her second trip to Q-Series with rounds of 70-71-70 to be the only player in the field with eight rounds under par.
“If anything, I proved to myself how much I've improved as a golfer throughout this past year,” He said. “I'm really proud of myself for sticking through some of the struggles and obstacles earlier in the year and coming out and improving on it. “Going into my rookie year, I didn't really know what to expect. I've had friends and (college) teammates (from USC) who went to the LPGA Tour and a lot of them ended up losing their cards. I looked at that and was like, ‘Wow, they're such great players. Is it really at that hard? It can't be that hard.’ I was really questioning that. But I've never experienced competition at that level consistently. It just took me some time to adjust. “I had a lot to learn about my own game and who I am as a player. Like how I could have the best results in terms of how I practice, how I play, and even just my daily routine as a professional golfer.
“Sure, if I had my perfect way I wouldn’t have put so much emphasis on changing my game to fit the LPGA (Tour). It would have been more about just improving my game and being the best golfer that I am versus thinking I needed to completely change my game to fit the Tour. But I'm glad I experienced that, because now I know. Maybe if I didn't go through it, later on I would have eventually struggled because I'd never learned my lesson.
“Now, I think I've learned that my game is enough for me to build upon. I shouldn't be changing it just to fit the tour ideal.”
She has also learned to manage her social media presence and balance it with real life.
“I'm glad that I receive a lot of support on social media, but it's always hard because social media is so vague and such a visual platform where people can only judge and assume based off the pictures you post,” she said. “They don't really know who you are as a person. They don't know the background to your story, which is totally understandable. “But, (social media) is just about portraying whatever you want to do, whatever makes you happy. You shouldn't be stressed too much about other people's opinions. I'm just really happy that people are even following me.
“In a way, posting on social media is just a part of life. I try to see everything in a very non-stressful way. As for comments, I don't read the comments too much. I don't have my notification on for social media so that helps. I only see what I want to see. “So, yeah, it’s just learning how to only take in what you want to take in and block out what you don't.”
He was talking about social media. But that last statement applies to golf and to life as well. If she’s learned that lesson – take in what’s good for you and block out the rest - at age 20, He is already well ahead of the game.