PINEHURST, N.C. - Is this it? Is this when Wie sheds the “best player to have never won a major” label? It’s crazy to think anyone could ponder assigning golf’s most dreaded label to a 24-year-old, but Wie’s never been placed on a fair pedestal since she played in her first U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12. That’s the pressure and hype that develops after leading the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open heading into the final round as a 15-year-old and again the following year as a 16-year-old.
But 2014 has been a new year, a new Wie. With a Stanford degree hanging on her wall and golf to focus completely on these days, she feels like this is the second part of a professional golf career that feels far longer than six years.
If this year is any indication, this renaissance of sorts will come with majors and a lot of wins. Outside of Stacy Lewis, no one on tour has played better and more consistently than Wie in 2014. Everywhere she goes, she’s in contention, and this doesn’t have the feel of a temporary hot stretch. She has eight top-10s in 12 starts so far.
And this Open – the one she leads by three shots after two 2-under 68s - feels like the season and her career’s watershed moment, the big breakthrough that she’s looked for to establish that her game justifies her stardom. It didn’t always feel that way over the last three years, finishing outside of the top-25 on the money list. This year? Wie is No. 2 on the money list, and that’s about to get a big jump based off of the way she’s played this week.
“I think what we are seeing in Michelle Wie is that for the first time since she was a child, she can devote all of her energy to her professional career,” Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said. “She has made improvements in every aspect in that regard.”
Did the pressure overwhelm her for that three year stretch where her results didn’t match her immense talent? Or was it simply a case of not having the time, juggling college and professional golf? Or is this simply a case of a supremely gifted young woman rediscovering her love for the game and the drive that it took to succeed at the highest level?
“You know, I never lost it,” said Wie of her love for golf. “I think it’s a more fun when you work hard. The results show. But I’ve been very patient, even when I didn’t play well. I worked hard. I knew I could get better. But that’s the game of golf. I think that’s what’s so fun about it. It’s a challenging game. You can never quite perfect it.
“I love working on my game. I never really lost a sense of determination or drive. It just – it is – a lot more fun when you work hard and the results show.”
All the work is showing this week. She’s long been one of the tour’s best strikers, but her putting seemed to enervate her game when she needed it most. There was the 82 in the final round at the 2005 US Women’s Open when she needed 34 putts. She was only one shot back of the lead heading into the weekend at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open after a 23-putt 6-under-par 66 – the round of the tournament - vaulted her into contention but needed 33 putts both weekend rounds and fell into a tie for 35th. Then, again this year, she was tied for the lead at the Kraft Nabisco Championship to open the year but 33 putts resulted in a final-round 71 to finish second to Lexi Thompson.
Her tabletop putting stance has been a lightning rod for criticism from couch commentators since its adoption, but the results are inarguable. Wie’s 4th on the tour in putting per green in regulation – 115 spots higher than she was two years ago before the switch – and this week, she’s only needed 26 and 29 putts, respectively, around some of the hardest greens to navigate in the world. Add that with 24 greens hit through two days at Pinehurst No. 2, and it’s not hard to see why Wie’s been so tough to catch.
“She's just hitting a lot of fairways, hitting it straight, she's got control of her ball and she's making putts,” said Paula Creamer, who sits six shots back of Wie. “If you do that, you're going to be doing pretty well at any golf course. That's what she's been doing these last couple of months.”
Part of it isn’t just her putting, though. For a phase, Wie said she was too aggressive and then as a result went through another where she wasn’t aggressive enough. That’s the balance you learn with experience. Part of that could have been the pressure, too. When everyone expects you to win, it’s impossible not to look at the leaderboard and think you have to play catch up after a bogey. That mindset can eat players up at an Open and it frequently did to Wie, missing the cut all but two times since 2006.
“I think this year I just tried to think about every shot, every hole,” said Wie, the three-time career LPGA winner. “I think I used to be too worried about the final score and where I was standing. I was kind of too concerned about what place I was in, instead of just trying to play the best I could every hole. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do now.”
Admittedly cliché sounding, but it’s working. This is the first time Wie’s owned sole possession of a lead in a major heading into Saturday, and this time it seems like she’ll close it out. It’s even more fitting that it comes with Thompson and the No. 1 player in the world Lewis on her heels.
Wie’s actually subconsciously practiced for this moment for years, her friends joke. A month and half ago playing in the Candy Cup, a friendly rivalry match at her home in Jupiter, Fla., on Meg Mallon’s team, Wie’s team of Mallon, Lewis and Alison Walshe beat Beth Daniel’s team. The winners were awarded a wooden salad bowl for their efforts, and the celebratory picture after elicited jokes from her fellow Medalist Club touring pros for months. While the rest of the winning team held the bowl in front of them, Wie without thinking hoisted it near her shoulder like a trophy.
Sunday, at Pinehurst, she hopes to be in a similar victory shot. Except this one is just her, alone on the 18th green with the crowd behind her watching the crescendo of a golf revival.
“I definitely always thought about, always dreamt of it,” said Wie. “Every time I hold something people make fun of me, because I hold it like a trophy.”
With only one more round to play, and no one will be making fun of her. She’ll really be holding a trophy.