BEDMINSTER, N.J. – There aren’t too many athletes in any sport who can be considered a grizzled veteran at the tender age of 27. Then again there aren’t too many athletes who burst on the scene bearing a burden of expectation as weighty as Michelle Wie who experienced too many ups and downs to count only to find herself still standing.
The image that comes to mind is of one of those inflatable dolls that you punch and it keeps bouncing back. As many times as Michelle has taken it on the chin, whether from injury, illness or just plain poor play, she has always dusted herself off, gotten up and gotten back at it. Through it all, she answered every question and never lost her keen – and somewhat offbeat – sense of humor.
“There is no secret that in my career there’s a lot of highs and lows,” Wie said Tuesday at Trump National, site of this year ‘s U.S. Women’s Open. “It’s definitely hard to put yourself back together. Sometimes life doesn’t make it easy for you. This year, I feel good about it. I feel positive.”
For most, having won four LPGA events, including a major championship at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, would be a great career. But Wie has never been most players. She was the one who would change the game, re-write the record book. And she remains the one who moves the needle more in women’s golf than anyone else. Everyone knows her name.
Remarkably, this is already the 14th U.S. Women’s Open for Wie and she comes in playing her best golf since that win in 2014, which was also her last victory. She finished T-3, T-2 and T-4 in the run-up to the last major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, where she was T-20, fading with a 73 on Sunday.
“It’s crazy,” Wie says. “I can’t believe it’s been 14 already. The USGA has been like family to me. I played in my first USGA event back in 2000. It’s been a great, great journey so far.”
The first time Wie hit bottom was a decade ago when she withdrew from the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open after a first-round 82. A year earlier, at 16, Wie had a chance to win in three majors, finishing T-3 in the ANA Inspiration, T-5 in the Women’s PGA and T-3 in the U.S. Women’s Open. But a fall while jogging early in 2007 damaged her wrist and she tried to play through the pain with disastrous results.
In eight LPGA starts, Wie missed the cut three times, withdrew twice and never finished higher than T-69 in a full-field tournament. She went an entire year without breaking par; from the last round of the 2006 Evian Championship until the second round of the 2007 Evian. That downturn continued into 2008, where in seven events she had no top-10 finishes.
Then things changed when she became an LPGA member in 2009, picked up her first tour win and played her way onto the U.S. Solheim Cup team, a goal that is motivating her this year. “I didn’t rack up many points last year,” Wie says. “I was far down on the list. That was one of my main goals to make the team. I didn’t want to leave it to a captain’s pick.”
That Solheim experience in 2009 was a turning point for Wie in many ways. It was the first time other players really got to know her in the privacy of the team room and, with her 3-0-1 record, she proved to be a great asset. Her teammates found her to be smart, funny, passionate and very loyal.
Wie won again in 2010 and then her second plunge came in 2012, the year she picked up a Stanford University degree, missing the cut 10 times and eight more times in 2013. And then there was another bounce back – two wins in 2014, including that U.S. Women’s Open. But after finishing third in scoring average in 2014 she fell to 53rd the next year and 116th last year.
Now she is on the upswing again and seemingly ready to win. She’s averaging 69.83 this season and over her last 11 rounds a sizzling 67.58. Most improved has been her putting, especially her lag putting, and a controlled cut off the tee that finds the fairway more reliably.
“I call it the fade life,” Wie says about her new left-to-right approach off the tee. “David [Leadbetter] and I changed my ball flight in the middle of last season. Felt like I wanted to play with more consistency. Hopefully, that fade has brought me to that.”
Driving the ball in the fairway and making putts are two of the keys to winning a U.S. Women’s Open, where the fairways are claustrophobic and the greens putt with the quickness of a tiled kitchen floor. Key also is having the right attitude. A U.S. Women’s Open tests your patience and your ability to go with the flow. And Wie knows all about that.
“Life doesn’t happen as predictable as you want it to,” she says. “You have to roll with the punches.”
She’s done that admirably since playing her first LPGA tournament in 2002 as a 12-year-old. If there is one thing Michelle Wie knows all about, it’s getting back up.