It’s not correct but it is easy to think of Michelle Wie as a former professional golfer, an incandescent star whose immense celebrity outshone her achievements.
The fact is Wie is just 30 years old and her playing career (impacted by wrist issues) is on hiatus as she and her new husband, Jonnie West, await the birth of their first child, a daughter due this summer.
But because Wie has been a part of golf’s public consciousness for nearly two decades and her career has twisted at times like a Blue Ridge Mountains back road, it’s fair to wonder if the LPGA Tour has seen the best of Wie as she settles into the next phase of her life.
If Wie’s career has been framed by headlines, commercials and the public’s almost inescapable fascination with her journey, her résumé is crowned by one steamy summer week in the North Carolina sandhills when Wie captured the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
“I thought to myself, ‘I want to be here on Sunday. I want to feel this exact thing.’ It’s a dream come true that it actually happened.” – Michelle Wie
Wie has just five career victories as a professional but winning the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open did more than change her narrative. It helped validate the outsized expectations that surrounded her from the time she dared to try qualifying for men’s professional events. And it stamped her a major champion, a brand that stays with players like birthmarks.
It happened at Pinehurst where, for the only time in history, the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens were played on the same course on consecutive weekends. It was a bold decision by the USGA, to set up its two most important championships on the same course, one just recently reimagined by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
One June Sunday, Wie was in the gallery watching eventual champion Martin Kaymer and Rickie Fowler in the final pairing of the men’s U.S. Open. One week later she was walking up the 18th fairway, looking at the same grandstands, and hearing the cheers for her.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this would be really cool if it was me,’ ” Wie recalled from her Sunday at the men’s Open. “We were kind of walking up 18, and I told (Jessica) Korda, look to your left. Those people in the stands. It was unbelievable. We both got goosebumps. I thought to myself, ‘I want to be here on Sunday. I want to feel this exact thing.’ It’s a dream come true that it actually happened.”
It’s not a stretch to say that Wie was a cultural touchstone, a Hawaiian-born marketing dream, a young woman who had the look, the style and the game to see a wider horizon. It was not so much that Wie never made the cut in a men’s professional event or that she never qualified for the men’s U.S. Open, it’s that she tried.
Eventually, Wie grew into more than a curiosity. She chose to stay four years at Stanford despite the enormous lure of being a full-time professional and, while she has battled injury issues on and off in her career, she remained a star, drawing attention for who she is even if someone else was winning.
When the 2014 Women’s Open began at Pinehurst, Wie had already finished second in the Kraft Nabisco Championship earlier in the year and had won the LPGA Lotte Championship two months prior. Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park and Lydia Ko were among the pre-tournament favorites on a firm golf course that demanded precision going into and around the greens.
It was already the 11th U.S. Women’s Open appearance for the 24-year-old, including a T3 finish in 2006.
“I really feel like I’m kind of starting the second part of my career. It’s fun. It’s a long journey. I think a golf career, you’re going to have ups, you’re going to have downs, it’s not a short career, it’s a very long career. I’m in it for the long run,” Wie said in a pre-tournament press conference.
Wie was in or near the lead from the outset, sitting one back of Lewis after 18 holes, holding a three-stroke lead after two days and sharing the lead with Amy Yang entering the final round.
Playing on sun-browned fairways, Wie gradually built her lead in the final round. By the time she reached the long par-4 16th, Wie led Lewis by three strokes.
An aggressive decision at 16 – hitting a hybrid from a fairway bunker – led to a double bogey that left Wie just one ahead. Rather than crumble, Wie responded by holing a twisting 25-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th that allowed her to savor the uphill walk to the final green.
“I wanted so badly to be in that position, just to kind of have a leisurely walk-up-to-18-and-make-a-par-to-win kind of thing. And I feel so lucky. Just seeing everyone root for me and it just felt so special,” Wie said.
Despite the disappointment of finishing second, Lewis understood the magnitude of the moment.
“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. I’m so happy for Michelle Wie. I mean this has been such a long time coming for her.”
Michelle Wie celebrates with the trophy after winning the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. Photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
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