As Michelle Wie lifted the U.S. Women’s Open Trophy in June at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, so many thoughts sped through her mind.
Gone was the self-doubt about whether she could win a major championship. Gone were the endless media questions about her inability to finish at the biggest tournaments.
Also pushed into the background were her dogged pursuit of the perfect swing, her lack of patience, her battles with nagging injuries and the often-fruitless search for success.
As the appreciative gallery surrounding the 18th green at steamy Pinehurst No. 2 rose to acknowledge the long-awaited triumph of this wunderkind, they had no way of knowing the emotional cinematic footage that raced through Wie’s head. They couldn’t hear her heart pounding. They couldn’t feel the sigh of relief after so many years of trying.
All they could see was the smiling player who had weathered the spotlight and expectations for more than half of her life. And on that summer day in the North Carolina Sandhills, the joy shown by Wie on the outside was just as palpable as the relief she felt within.
“I’ve been working really hard and this win was a long time coming,” said Wie, 25, a native of Hawaii who now resides in Jupiter, Fla. “It’s a very satisfying feeling when you work hard and the hard work finally pays off.”
Wie’s 2014 LPGA season, which ended Nov. 23 with the CME Group Tour Championship, was her finest as a professional. She notched two wins – the U.S. Women’s Open and the LPGA Lotte Championship in April in Hawaii – and a career-high 13 top-10 finishes.
Coming off a disappointing 2013 season, the player best known for her length was suddenly near the top in a completely different category in 2014. This year, Wie ranked third in greens in regulation (GIR) at 77 percent, fifth in putts per GIR at 1.764, owned a putting average of 29.92, was third in rounds under par (56) and fifth in rounds in the 60s (33).
Last year, Wie ranked No. 36 in scoring average at 71.71. This year, she improved to third at 69.8 strokes per round in 21 tournaments.
“She’s cleaned up her putting and has taken ownership of it,” said 2014 LPGA Player of the Year Stacy Lewis, who finished second to Wie at Pinehurst. “The biggest way to be consistent on tour is through putting and I think that’s what we’re seeing now in her play.”
Both a good friend and a rival to Wie, Lewis was the benchmark in Wie’s goal setting for 2014. Wie recognized consistency as Lewis’ greatest strength and made that her top priority.
“I wanted to be more consistent and have a lot of top 10s this year,” said Wie. “Instead of trying to change things, I kept working on my game and building on it. It was also about being patient and knowing I was working on the right things.”
Her primary focus was on putting – often a struggle for the 6-foot-1 player. In an act of desperation during the middle of a round in the 2012 CME Group Tour Championship, Wie bent her back to a 90-degree angle and began draining putts.
She took that tabletop stance to a tournament in Dubai in late 2012, and by week’s end, had not recorded a single three-putt green.
Wie has kept that unique putting stance ever since, and even though she has been questioned about the method, all she can say is, it works.
“I’ve never really cared what I looked like because it felt so comfortable,” said the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion. “Even when people made fun of me in the beginning, I stuck with it. Now I have confidence and can say, ‘I’m a good putter.’”
Stepping away from a traditional putting stroke was only part of Wie’s strategy to become a more consistent player. For years, she labored to build a perfect swing and focused on having her hands in all the proper positions for a classic stroke. Late last year, it finally struck her that perfection was not the answer.
“I decided to just try to feel my swing more and be OK with things not being perfect,” she said. “I’m not the straightest hitter, but I know I’m good from hitting out of the trees and the native areas.”
Wie also came to terms with how her putting stroke impacted the rest of her game.
“I’m going to make mistakes,” she said. “I’m learning to roll with the punches better and I’ve learned that the difference between winning a golf tournament and not winning is how you handle those mistakes, how you move forward from them, and how quickly you can forget about it.”
While Wie has tightened her technical and mental approach to the game, she added that a key factor in this year’s success has been improved physical health.
“Last year and this year are really the first time I’ve felt healthy,” said Wie, although she did miss nine events this season due to a finger injury.
Wie felt discomfort in her right index finger in July at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, where she missed the cut. She tried to play the following week in Ohio, but again missed the 36-hole cut.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t even hold a fork or brush my teeth without pain,” she said.
The injury was diagnosed as an acute stress reaction – an overuse injury – and doctors advised her to take time away from golf. During that timeout, Wie also rehabbed her left knee, having suffered a sprain and bone contusion in January.
“Injuries have always been part of the reason why I haven’t been able to keep momentum going,” said Wie, who has experienced back, wrist and ankle injuries in the past. “It was frustrating when this year’s injuries happened, but it only added fuel to the fire and motivated me to finish the year strong.”
Wie said she learned from a mistake she made at age 17 when she broke three bones in her wrist. Even though she went in and out of casts, her doctors never sent her to physical therapy to strengthen the wrist.
“I fought through the pain and played with it,” said Wie. “That injury changed my swing, I didn’t play well, and it got in my head. This time, I wanted to make sure I didn’t reinjure myself and that I was completely pain-free before I came back out.”
While the injuries have limited Wie’s prodigious talents at times, questions about her game and her desire were often hard to ignore. Some called her an underachiever. For Wie, it was a matter of her game and her health finally lining up.
“She’s taken a lot of grief over the years, but Michelle has always fought and believed that she belonged at the top,” said good friend Christina Kim. “She kept the faith in herself and knew her abilities to perform.”
Added fellow LPGA player and good friend Jessica Korda: “I think she proved to all those people who doubted her that she has what it takes. It was just a matter of time.”
Admittedly, Wie wondered when she would win a major championship or even if she could win a major, although she had challenged for titles since she was 13, having posted 10 top-10s since 2003, four of them while still an amateur. When she won her first major at Pinehurst, something important changed.
“Now, I’m in the hunt for major championship No. 2,” she said with a laugh. “It gave me a lot of confidence for the future. Of everything that’s happened this year, winning the U.S. Women’s Open takes the prize.”
Even Wie’s LPGA peers have seen a difference.
“She’s comfortable, happy and there’s such a sense of contentment about her,” said Kim. “There’s more joy and a lot less pressure in the air.”
“The most impressive thing about her is how down-to-earth she is, even through all the success and heartbreak, which basically happened in front of the world,” added Korda. “I think this is just the beginning for her.”
Wie says it’s still “very surreal” to hear herself announced as the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion or hear it mentioned on golf telecasts.
“It’s one of the greatest honors,” said Wie, who will defend her title at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club in early July. “Being an American golfer, winning the Open is kind of like holding the Holy Grail.”
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who contributes frequently for USGA websites.