One of the best parties of the year on the LPGA circuit took place a few weeks ago at Harrah's in Atlantic City. The event was ostensibly to celebrate the pro-am participants at the ShopRite Classic, but it doubled as an exhibition of the youth, glamour and star power that is propelling the LPGA into a new golden age. Lexi Thompson lit up the room with her dazzling smile, but watching her mug for goofy photos was a reminder that the winner of this year's first major championship is still a fun-loving 19-year-old. Floating around the party was Sandra Gal, 29, the German Solheim Cupper who speaks three languages, paints, plays the violin and moonlights as a fashion model. Also making the scene was Morgan Pressel, 26, who won her first major seven years ago and has since raised more than $3.4 million for cancer research. Conspicuous by her absence was Lydia Ko, who at 17 is the purest talent to burst onto the LPGA scene since Nancy Lopez 37 years ago. In keeping with her low-key sensibilities, Ko skipped the revelry to volunteer at a food bank. If you have a young daughter, the LPGA tour is one-stop shopping for positive role models.
A few hours into the party the energy changed. Flashes from iPhones began popping, and the volume of chatter rose. Michelle Wie had arrived. There are more accomplished players on the LPGA tour, but she remains the only one with the incandescent glow of celebrity. It's always been that way, but at long last Wie, 24, has the game to back up her fame. On Sunday, in the Sandhills of North Carolina, she fulfilled all that promise with a victory at the U.S. Women's Open, her second of the season to go along with a runner-up finish to Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco.
Wie leads the tour money list and was clearly first in the hearts of the middle-aged guests at Harrah's. Even in flats, the 6'1" Wie towered over most of them. One fellow, his cheeks reddened from an afternoon battling the elements on the golf course—or maybe it was the bourbon from the open bar—blurted out, "You're even prettier in person." Wie offered a wan smile, not knowing how to respond. Mini-tour player Molly Aronsson was fanning herself after a brief encounter with Wie. "I was so overwhelmed I couldn't speak," Aronsson said.
It's hard to say what gives a person star quality—after all, there are plenty of good-looking actors but only one Robert Redford. "Whatever it is, Michelle has it," says Meg Mallon, Wie's mentor and a two-time U.S. Women's Open champ. "People are drawn in by her, they can't take their eyes off her. Every sport needs a person like that, and Michelle is it for women's golf."
The ratings for the Kraft were up 124% from last year, and it's no surprise the Open got an 89% overnight bounce because the final round was Wie's entire career in microcosm: moments of high drama and low comedy punctuated by her freakish talent and dogged determination. Wie's victory has sweeping ramifications for the resurgent LPGA, but it was also a deeply personal triumph. Long after the round at Pinehurst No. 2, she was still overwhelmed by the magnitude of the achievement. "I can't even think straight I'm so happy right now," she said. "I'm so honored to have my name on the trophy, just so grateful for everything. I'm feeling every single emotion I can right now."
Wie is the same age Annika Sorenstam was when she made the Open the first of her 10 major championships. It is particularly poignant for Wie to be welcomed into the game's most exclusive club because until recently her golfing life had been defined by a sense of otherness. She didn't compete for her high school team or play many junior events, her prodigious talent (and ambitious parents) pushing her into nontraditional competitive situations: a girl playing against men at qualifying for the 2003 U.S. Open and a handful of Sony Opens, then as an undergrad challenging hardened LPGA pros.
It was at Stanford that Wie finally found her place. "College was such a special time," she says. "It was a chance for me to grow up and figure out who I am. That's what college is for most people, I guess, but it was especially important for me because I didn't have the most normal childhood." That last line, delivered with a knowing chuckle, is about as deep as Wie is willing to delve into the trauma of her wild ride as a youngster. She won her first two tournaments while attaining a communications degree with a 3.4 GPA, one of the more underrated feats in recent student-athlete history.
Wie graduated in the spring of 2012 and became, for the first time, a full-time touring professional. But for a year and a half it looked as if she was just punching the clock. It was Mallon, as the Solheim Cup captain, who altered the trajectory of Wie's career by choosing her for the U.S. team in August 2013, even though to that point in the season she had missed seven cuts in 19 starts and finished no better than ninth.
"I'll never forget Michelle's reaction when she found out she had been picked," says Jessica Korda, one of her closest friends on tour. "She was crying so hard her contact lens popped out. People who think she doesn't care have no clue. She just needed a little spark to reignite that passion."
Wie finished 2--2 and was one of the few Americans to show any fire during a lopsided loss to Europe. What she treasures most about the Solheim week are the deep friendships she forged. "I felt more free to be myself," she says. Two years earlier Wie had established a home base in Jupiter, Fla., the center of the golf universe, but it wasn't until after the Solheim that she finally had friends to invite over for dinner parties and money games to play with the many LPGA regulars in the area, including Solheim teammates Korda and world No. 1 Stacy Lewis. Her new compatriots have been delighted to discover that Wie is a quirky, eclectic character full of surprises.
"She's kind of a klutz," says Lewis. "For someone with such a graceful swing, put her in the gym, and it's a comedy show."
"A lot of people don't understand what a dork she is," says Tiffany Joh. "She's awkward, and that's part of her charm."
"She eats so much it's a joke," says Korda.
Indeed, you can get high cholesterol just following Wie on Instagram. She's such a carnivore that her swing instructor, David Leadbetter, gave her an alignment stick emblazoned with the image of a rack of ribs. A regular member of Wie's dinner posse, Joh says the goal of the group is "to eat until we have regrets. If there was a world ranking for eating, Michelle would definitely be in the top five."
Wie has also become well known on tour for her artsy side, whether that means painting her fingernails to look like Starry Night or dying her hair in Technicolor swirls. On the second story of her townhouse at the Bear's Club -- a swank private club of which Jack Nicklaus is the patriarch -- she has a dedicated art studio. "I love to play my music and drink a glass of wine and do my paintings," she says. "It's my form of escape." She is partial to large, abstract works. The paintings she has posted on Instagram are so arresting that she has been approached about mounting a gallery exhibit, but she's hesitant to do that. "I just paint for myself," she says.
There's no canvas more vast than a golf course, and Wie's resurgence can be traced to her decision to express herself more creatively. She has been working with the technically minded Leadbetter since she was 13, using video as a core teaching tool. Last October, in the days before an event in Malaysia, Wie informed her coach she would rely entirely on feel.
"Hallelujah!" says Mallon. "My contention has always been that David is a mechanic and Michelle an artist." Wie finished 12th in Malaysia and tied for third the next week in Korea, her best showing in more than two years. She is fiercely loyal to Leadbetter but does allow, "For a long time I was chasing technical perfection, where every swing had to be exactly the same. It was a stressful way to play. Now I just hit shots. It's allowed me to play with more freedom."