Pinehurst could have been where the legend of Michelle Wie made its last stand. It now may be where it started.
With her comfortable three-shot lead sliced to one on the 16th hole at Pinehurst on Sunday, Wie stood over a slippery five-foot putt for double bogey and could have well been staring into her past filled with so many heartbreaks on the golf course. She was clinging to her lead — and perhaps her future at the 69th U.S. Women’s Open.
A miss would have given her a triple bogey, robbed her of the lead, and may have broken and crushed a golfer who has spent years finding herself, building herself back up getting back her smile and swagger — and even her glare and killer instinct.
But just like she did all tournament long, Wie made the putt, showing how much her game — and her nerves — has matured.
Now clinging to a one-shot lead over Stacy Lewis, who was in the clubhouse with an even-par score, Wie went to the 17th hole and went for the jugular, draining a birdie putt that she called one of the best putts of her life and seizing the major trophy that had eluded her in 37 previous starts at majors. The defiant fist pump said it all: Game. Set. Match.
Demons expunged. Potential finally realized. Asterisks forever erased.
“And I think that was one of the best putts I’ve ever hit in my life,” Wie said. “It was really fast. It was a double breaker. It definitely felt like Solheim when I made the putt. That kind of emotion, that kind of pressure. I just, I think, I’ll think of that putt as one of the best putts I’ve ever hit in my entire life.”
Finally, the the 24-year-old who has long been billed as the female Tiger Woods won women’s golf’s most prestigious trophy. A par on the 18th would seal her two-shot, two-under-par victory. And the win could be to her what Roger Federer’s first major at Wimbledon was to him. The floodgates could open, and that would be a win-win for Wie, women’s golf most marketable superstar, and the LPGA’s players, whose boats can all be lifted by Wie’s rising tide.
But even if the floodgates do not open, it won’t matter because Wie has won and is now — finally — playing with house money with the weight of the world now forever off of her shoulders. No more chatter about “underachieving” or “what could have been.”
Just when she was starting to find herself after some tumultuous years on and off the golf course, her critics still reminded the world that Wie had not won a tournament. Then she won the Lorena Ochoa Open in Mexico in 2009. Her critics then said she had not won a tournament with a full field. Then she won the CN Canadian Open in 2012. Her critics then said she could not win in the United States. Then she won the LPGA Lotte Open in Hawaii this year. Her critics then said she had not won a tournament in the “Lower 48” and still was without a major.
They can’t say that anymore after her triumphant performance on grandest of stages in the game’s most important championship on one of the most legendary golf courses that has hosted the most golf championships and is considered the home of American golf.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening,” Wie said before later saying that she “definitely got a lot of goosebumps walking up No. 18.”
And perhaps winning the Open after all of her trials and tribulations makes it sweeter than had she won it as a 15-year old who led the U.S. Open after three rounds or the 16-year old who would finish in a tie for third.
“Life is just so ironic,” Wie said. “Without your downs, without the hardships, I don’t think you appreciate the ups as much as you do. I think the fact that I struggled so much, the fact that I kind of went through a hard period of my life, the fact that this trophy is right next to me, it means so much more to me than it ever would have when I was 15.”
— Michelle Wie (@themichellewie) June 22, 2014
Earlier in the week, 11-year-old American Lucy Li reminded the golf world — and perhaps Wie herself — how fun the game could be.
“She’s smiling again on the golf course because she loves the game. She’s got a hop back in her step,” David Leadbetter, Wie’s coach who she has referred to as her second father, told USA Today.
When Li said she just wanted to eat more ice cream after her eight-over first round, Wie said she had the right attitude. It was not long ago that Wie was the precocious teenager who missed the cut on a PGA Tour even by one stroke, whom Hootie Johnson said would be welcome at the Masters if she won a PGA Tour event.
What an agonizing, topsy-turvy ride it has been for Wie since then. She had to overcome injuries, suffer some embarrassing finishes, including eight missed cuts on the PGA Tour, and brush back criticism for getting a Stanford degree by the same hypocrites who slam college basketball players for not staying in school.
“When I kind of had my downs, when people doubted me, when I even doubted myself, my parents would never let me doubt myself. If I even showed an ounce of doubt, they just believed in me so hard that I started to believe in myself again,” Wie said. “I owe them everything.”
With her win, Wie now leads the LPGA money list, and she showed just how much she has grown at Pinehurst on the golf course — and in between the ears.
On Thursday, she made a crucial par save on the 17th to keep her momentum going before punctuating her round with a birdie. On Friday, she finished with two birdies after making another critical par save. And on Saturday, after a double bogey and two bogeys in four holes took her from six-under to two-under, she steadied herself and parred the last four holes to save her round — and the title. The Wie of old may have imploded during any of those moments.
But not Wie 2.0, who also uses a “table top” putting style that, when broken down, is not too different from the way Jack Nicklaus bent over the ball. The style has drastically improved her game. Five-footers that would routinely slip out not confidently go in.
Wie has now earned $1,588,465 this year to top the money list and became only the second American to win the U.S. Women’s Open in the last seven years (Paula Creamer won the title in 2010). This year, Wie has made 13 cuts in all 13 events she has played and has 8 top-10 finishes. She also made only five starts in between her last two victories. As the LPGA noted, she made 79 starts between her second and third career wins.
The biggest winner, besides Wie, though, is the LPGA, especially since the PGA seems to lack the “it” golfers after Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The LPGA now has its marquee star holding the game’s most important trophy. And even her fiercest competitors — and friends — are realizing it.
Lewis, the World No. 1 and leader after the first round who almost forced Wie into a three-hole playoff, said Wie’s win was “great for the game of golf” and “even better for women’s golf.”
“Well, I think that scene on 18, being on network TV, as many people as we had around there at Pinehurst No. 2 and Michelle Wie winning the golf tournament, I don’t think you can script it any better,” Lewis said. “I mean this has been such a long time coming for her. She works way too hard. I’ve seen the work she puts in. We work out together when we’re home. We play some golf together when we’re home. And she’s out there grinding away just like the rest of us. To see her get it done, and the way she did it today, coming back after that double, I’m just so happy for her.”
Call it a Wie-set. Or Wie-demption.
But Tiger Woods, who may be coming back from injury this week at just the perfect time, and the PGA will now have some competition from Wie, a golfer whose future again seems limitless.