The Michelle Wie era has, at long last, begun. After years of injury and controversy, too much hype and money and not enough birdies, Wie won her first pro tournament Sunday afternoon at the LPGA’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Typical of Wie’s highly melodramatic career, the win didn’t come easily, as she survived a final round dogfight with a half-dozen of the game’s biggest names, ultimately making five straight nerve-jangling pars and then a gorgeous birdie on the final hole to close out a two-stroke victory over Paula Creamer.
Along the way Wie displayed both her awesome talent and her enduring star power, reminding everyone what all the fuss was about in the first place. It was a deeply personal triumph, capping a period of tremendous maturation on and off the golf course.
Having spent her teens bouncing between tours and continents, Wie, 20, had finally found some stability this season as a full-fledged LPGA rookie. Even before her victory at the penultimate tournament of the year, it had been a successful campaign defined by solid results, new friendships and a starring role at the Solheim Cup, during which Wie was overcome by a fist-pumping passion that was utterly foreign for a player who has always worn an icy game face.
The only thing missing was an individual victory, a familiar story for a player who, until Sunday, had not won a tournament of any kind since the 2003 U.S. Publinks Amateur, when she was a 13-year-old with an impossibly perfect swing and an endless future. Back then no one could have imagined another victory would be such a long time coming. But Wie used the many blown chances and missed opportunities as a journey of self-discovery, and along the way the giggly, goofy tween phenom grew into a self-possessed young woman.
A few weeks before leaving for Mexico a reflective Wie told me in an exclusive interview, “I feel like I have talent. I know how to play this game. There’s just one last huge hurdle to overcome. I’ve been trying my best to figure it out and I think what it comes down to is I needed to believe in myself a little more. So now when I play I’m putting myself out there more and really putting myself on the line. The stakes are higher for me but I’m okay with that. I’m so focused on winning and to get that victory I have to give it everything I have. There’s no holding back anymore.”
The exhilaration of having finally come through was apparent on Sunday when Wie did a charmingly dorky dance on the final green of the Guadalajara Country Club. As much she will treasure this victory, it means even more to her sport. It is poetic that Wie’s breakthrough came at Ochoa’s tournament; during the awards ceremony on Sunday the reigning world No. 1 simultaneously presented Wie with the trophy and passed the torch. Wie’s conquest will resonate from Guadalajara to her native Honolulu to Madison Avenue and all the way to LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., where officials have spent this year furiously trying to keep the tour afloat as their niche sport has lost corporate support during the current economic downturn.
Wie’s victory is all the more notable because it came in her first tournament in a month and a half as she has been devoting her focus to pursuing her communications degree at Stanford, where she in her third year. Wie is a full-time student during the fall and winter quarters, from late September to mid-March, and then takes an annual leave of absence as the LPGA schedule heats up. She has a 3.4 GPA and can often be found chilling in her dorm room with a large, eclectic group of friends.
Wie has thrived at Stanford among other high achievers because it has allowed her to “be a normal kid with a normal life,” she says. Getting settled in on the LPGA was a little tougher because Wie had never embraced the tour while she spent years dabbling in competition against men (with mostly disastrous results.) By the end of 2008, after two years of substandard play due to a series of wrist injuries, the tournament invitations that once seemed like an entitlement were no longer forthcoming. So Wie swallowed her pride and went through the LPGA’s qualifying tournament to secure her playing privileges. “I gained a lot of respect for myself by going through Q School,” Wie says.
Her explosive play throughout the season — first on tour in birdie average (4.16 per round), sixth in driving distance (268.1 yards) — earned her a captain’s pick to the Solheim Cup in late August, and it was a week that forever changed the trajectory of her career. Buoyed by a putting lesson from Champions tour oracle Dave Stockton, who convinced Wie to employ more feel and stop stressing about her mechanics, she summoned spectacular golf and a flag-waving fervor en route to going 3-0-1 and leading the U.S. to victory.
Having discovered the missing ingredient in her game — passion — it was inevitable she would break through. A month after the Solheim Cup, Wie finished second in the Navistar LPGA Classic despite being hobbled by a badly sprained ankle. It was her second runner-up finish of the year and sixth of her career, but this one felt different — on Twitter, Wie’s friend and fellow player Paige MacKenzie hailed her limp as “gangsta swagger.”
She brought that confidence to Guadalajara, and years of practice and preparation and want and desire were distilled into four nearly flawless rounds of golf. Golf, as we know it, will never be the same.