PINEHURST, N.C. — Michelle Wie had a chance to win the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open at Newport Country Club as a 16-year-old, finishing two shots out of a playoff won by Annika Sorenstam.
In fact, she had a few genuine opportunities in major championships as an adolescent, recording six top-five finishes in majors before her 17th birthday.
But there’s no way she would have ever appreciated capturing any of those titles as much as she cherished winning the 69th U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2.
As close as Wie came to winning those early titles, she came seemingly as close to becoming inconsequential in women’s golf through the few years that followed.
She persevered through both the good and trying times, and now has her first major championship, the most coveted trophy in women’s golf.
Wie shot an even-par 70 in a final round that included a double bogey on the 16th hole followed by a birdie on the 17th to claim a two-shot win over runner-up and world No. 1 Stacy Lewis with a 2-under 278.
“I think it just means so much more to me,” Wie said. “I think life is just so ironic. I think that 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.”
As big as the win is for Wie, it may be equally as big for women’s golf, as Wie is the LPGA Tour’s version of Tiger Woods in notoriety, though heretofore without the success, and the women’s game had perhaps its grandest stage this week with consecutive U.S. Opens at the same course for the first time in history.
“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 think it's great for the game of golf. I think it's even better for women's golf.”
Wie began the final round tied for the lead with Amy Yang at 2 under, and they were four shots clear of four players tied for third. Yang fell out of contention playing the first four holes 4 over.
Wie bogeyed the first, and eight pars later her lead was down to a stroke over a charging Lewis. She pushed the lead back to three with an eagle at the 10th – which was set up to play only 452 yards with an accessible front pin – with a driver and 8-iron to 10 feet.
“I couldn't get anything going,” Wie said. “I kind of left myself some good birdie opportunities and I hit some great putts, they just didn't drop. It felt really good to make an eagle on 10.”
Wie employed a conservative approach on a course set up at only 6,153 yards, seldom hitting driver off the tee and often opting for a low, penetrating 3-wood. She was behind the drives of playing partner Yang on many holes.
It worked through 15 holes, but she got aggressive on her second shot from a fairway bunker on the par-4 16th hole and it cost her, and nearly very dearly.
Wie hit a hybrid from a fairway bunker and hit it into the native area short and right of the green. It took Wie, her caddie and several USGA officials a few minutes to find the ball near a large bush. “I think that I felt a tinge of panic. I would be lying if I would say I was calm and collected,” Wie said. “There was a lot of different words going through my mind at that point. But I think the thing that I was most proud of is that I just didn't let it get away from me. I assessed the situation. I knew what I needed to do. And I think that comes with experience.”
Wie took a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie, dropped in the fairway, left herself 20 feet for bogey and still needed to hole a 5-foot putt for a double.
“I just like to make it really difficult for myself,” Wie said. “I was kind of a dummy for not laying up when I was in that situation. I just unnecessarily tried to go for it, and it kind of bit me in the butt. But I laughed it off. Stuff like that does happen.”
The double dropped her lead back to a single shot over Lewis, who was finished. But Wie holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the 161-yard par-3 17th hole that was fast and broke in two directions to give herself a two-shot cushion with a hole to play.
“I think that was one of the best putts I've ever hit in my life,” said Wie, who followed the putt with a pair demonstrative fist pumps.
Wie didn’t three-putt all week on No. 2’s tricky greens using her homemade putting technique known as the Table Top, in which she bends over with her back nearly parallel to the ground.
The birdie-par finish thwarted Lewis’ charge. She made eight birdies to record the most in a U.S. Open round in history – men’s or women’s – and posted a 4-under 66 to match the low round of the tournament and take the clubhouse lead at even-par 280 when Wie had five-plus holes remaining.
“Coming into the day I thought if I could get back to even par it would be a good spot,” Lewis said. “I thought with the pressure of a major and the way this golf course played, I thought I had a chance. … I knew I needed to get out early and post a number and make Michelle earn it.”
Wie did, and she has.
Wie’s low point in the public eye probably came in 2007 when she was 17. She walked off the course at the Ginn Tribute outside Charleston while 14-over citing a wrist injury, showed up at the site of the McDonald’s LPGA Championship major just two days later to practice, and quit the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles after 10 holes, again citing the injury.
She was heavily criticized, and did little in the game for a couple years before winning her first two LPGA Tour titles in 2009 and 2010. Even as late as the past two years she finished outside the top 40 in earnings on tour and dropped outside the top 80 in the world rankings.
There was a time it looked like Wie might fade from the game and only be remembered as a child prodigy that never realized her talent. It appears that time has passed.
As Wie sat down on the stage in the media center interview room for her champions press conference, she pulled the Harton S. Semple Trophy closer to her. Who could blame her.
“I never stopped working hard, and no matter how hard I worked, there was a point where I just wasn't getting any better,” said Wie, who said her parents and those close to her kept her believing when she doubted herself. “But [instructor] David [Leadbetter] kind of talked to me and said that, ‘You know, sometimes hard work shows overnight and sometimes it shows over a couple of years.’ And, obviously, I think I was on the couple of years track.”