This is where it all began for Michelle Wie West, so it’s the perfect place to resume the story. At just 13, the hard-hitting Hawaiian with the silky-smooth swing tied for ninth in the 2003 ANA Inspiration. Nearly two decades later and two years removed from competition, she dazzled with a 2-under 70 Thursday as the 50th anniversary ANA began.
Wie West, who missed the cut last week at the Kia Classic in her first competition since June 2019 following maternity leave and COVID-19, trails Patty Tavatanakit’s 66 by four strokes.
Wie West’s game has always felt at home at Mission Hills, site of six of her 14 top-10 finishes in majors, including runner-up in the 2014 ANA, the same year she won the U.S. Women’s Open. Wie West didn’t have her best stuff on Thursday, but her up-and-down game bailed her out time and again.
After going out in even-par 36 – one birdie and one bogey – she ripped off three birdies in a row, beginning on No. 1 – her 10th hole of the day. Except for a short miss for par on No. 6, her putter was rock-solid all day.
“I am just happy to see my name on the first page of the leaderboard,” Wie West said, her smile as radiant as in 2003. “That's really special to me. Been a long time since I've seen that. I have a lot of great memories, my first one being 18 years ago. This place a really special to me.”
In that 2003 ANA, Wie West shocked the cynics by remaining in contention into the back nine of the final round. Then on No. 11, she had a 15-foot eagle putt that would have pulled her within one-stroke of the lead. But a three-putt exposed the inexperience of youth and she made four more bogeys to close with a 76.
Still, the exuberance of her youth won hearts while the maturity of her game garnered respect. On the week, she averaged 286.3 yards off the tee – best in the field.
“It feels weird,” Wie West said about the memories of 2003. “You know, looking back, I was a kid. I still feel like a kid. Having a baby definitely puts a different perspective on everything. I'm more excited to go home and see her than I was about my round, to be honest.”
Since giving birth to Makenna in 2019, Wie West has said she wants her daughter to see Mom play real golf, not just highlights on YouTube. While it will be a few years until Makenna is old enough to fully appreciate what Mom is up to, Thursday was a great way to lay the groundwork for those days.
Tavatanakit, whose towering tee shots are reminiscent of the 13-year-old Wie West, birdied four of her last six holes to finish a bogey-free 66 with a flourish. For the day, she averaged 291 yards with the driver.
“It was a pretty calm and relaxing day today,” said Tavatanakit. “I just stuck to my game plan and didn't get too greedy out there. I know it's a major, it's tough, the course is really tough. I was just being really patient and I was waiting for putts to drop, and they did on the back nine.”
Shanshan Feng, who shot 5 under, was making a return to competition of her own. With Covid curtailing international travel, she stayed home in China all of 2020 and is returning to the LPGA Tour for the first time in 14 months – which made her 67 all the more impressive.
“Last year was a difficult year for everybody, and I just made a decision at the middle of the year to go back to China and maybe take some time off with my friends and family at home,” Feng said. “ANA was the earliest I could make and I'm so happy that I can be here.”
For Wie West, the ANA Inspiration is like going home. This is where she stepped into the spotlight and proved she was the real deal. On Thursday, she showed signs that she was really back.
“I have to say today was a bit like when I was 13,” Wie West said with a laugh. “I hit it all over the place and grinded out there. That's kind of how I play. I don't know if I hit it further when I was 13. I keep looking back on some of the drives I used to hit back then and be like, ‘I can't believe I used to hit it this far.’ But I like to think I got a little bit better in 18 years.”
No longer a kid but rather now a mom with a kid, Wie West brings a different kind of joy to the golf course than she did in 2003. But the message sent in the first round of the ANA Inspiration was not just for Makenna but for all watching: Mom’s still got game.