Michelle Wie's golf game has always been built on her sublime physical gifts and an obsession with technical precision, but during her roller-coaster career one key ingredient has been mostly missing: passion. She has often seemed to approach tournaments like a joyless middle manager running through a to-do list, her youthful spunk stolen by crushing amounts of hype, money and unfulfilled expectations. But everything changed for Wie at last week's Solheim Cup, played at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.
The U.S. team retained the Cup with a surge in Sunday singles that was entirely predictable given that the Americans had used the same formula to take the previous two Cups. Wie was the real revelation. The 19-year-old rookie, six years removed from her last victory of any kind, made the U.S. team only because of Beth Daniel's leap of faith with a captain's pick, but Wie stole the show as the best player and biggest cheerleader on a young team searching for an identity. Her 3-0-1 record was the sparkliest of this Cup, but more surprising than the points Wie earned was her fist-pumping, foot-stomping, thigh-slapping fervor. A self-described "hermit" who has rarely revealed herself, Wie developed a goofy, giggly chemistry with her teammates and felt so at ease in her new surroundings that her traditionally grim game face was replaced by a radiant smile.
"It's been stunning to see the change in her," said Cristie Kerr, who went 2-1-1 in her fifth Solheim Cup. "It's as if she's grown up right before our eyes."
Wie's blossoming was not accidental, as her teammates went out of their way to bring her out of her shell, sometimes through old-fashioned hazing. "Angela Stanford was on Michelle Wie the first day we practiced," said Daniel. "She's digging at her, and Michelle's going right back, toe-to-toe. And Michelle is like, 'Why are you picking on me?' Angela said, 'Because you have to be tough for this event. I'm going to make you tough.'"
In the Solheim's opening session, the Friday-morning four-ball, Wie made four birdies in the first 16 holes to carry partner Morgan Pressel, but a sloppy finish allowed Catriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth to steal a halve. For a lesson on how to close, Wie needed to look no further than teammates Kerr and Paula Creamer and their match versus the powerhouse team of Suzann Pettersen and Sophie Gustafson. Creamer dropped a 45-foot bomb on the 16th hole to put the U.S. 1 up, and then Kerr slammed the door with birdies on the final two holes. Creamer, 23, also starred in the key match of the afternoon foursomes, making a 20-footer on the 17th hole to close out Matthew and Janice Moodie. The victory made Creamer's partner, 49-year-old Juli Inkster, the alltime U.S. points leader (with 18) and staked the Americans to a 4 1/2-3 1/2 first-day lead.
Creamer, like all the Americans, professed to being inspired by Inkster, who had left most of her teammates in tears with a heartfelt pep talk on the eve of what she said would be her final Cup as a player. Said Stanford, "We want to win this for our country and our captain, but we also want to win for Juli."
Saturday was when Wie took over the Cup. She was sent out in the first morning four-ball match alongside the irrepressible Christina Kim, 25, who spent the match jawing at Wie and shamelessly playing to the crowd while intermittently producing clutch shots. Wie was sensational in making five birdies in the first 11 holes during a commanding 5-and-4 victory over Helen Alfredsson and Tania Elosegui, and she and Kim celebrated on the 14th green with a series of elaborate handshakes and zany dance steps that were punctuated by Wie's giving her partner a light spank on the booty to the cheers of thousands of mildly mystified fans. Afterward Kim's voice was nearly shot, while a giddy Wie said, "This is the most fun I've ever had playing golf. I'm still shaking from the round."
Europe squared the Solheim Cup by taking the final two four-ball matches on the 18th hole, the key blow being Anna Nordqvist's 20-footer for birdie. The momentum carried over to afternoon foursomes as Europe won two of the first three matches to claim its first lead of the week. Wie and Kerr were the last Yanks standing, in a tussle against Hjorth and Nordqvist. Wie seemed to thrive on the pressure, hitting it stiff on 10 and 11 to stake the U.S. to a 2-up lead and then making a key 31/2-footer on 12 to preserve the margin.
The inability to consistently hole clutch putts has long been the only bugaboo in Wie's game, and she knows it. The week before the Solheim she rang up Dave Stockton, the Champions tour putting oracle. Across a pair of four-hour lessons, Stockton studied Wie's mechanical action and diagnosed that she was aiming to the right and then pulling her putts with an overactive right hand. Stockton revamped Wie's alignment and ball position and persuaded her to shorten her preputt routine, but mostly they focused on improving her feel by treating putting as more art than science. Says Stockton, "I told her, When putting becomes the strongest part of your game, can you imagine how much fun you're going to have?"
In the crucial Saturday-afternoon foursomes match, a wild sequence at 17 left Wie with a five-footer to halve the hole. She drilled it, letting loose a flurry of fist pumps and sending the drama to the 18th hole.
In the great debate about Tiger Woods's potty mouth, his apologists always point out that his profanity is merely a reflection of how much he cares. If that's the metric, then the U.S. team really, really wanted to win Saturday's final match. After Wie singed the edge of the cup with a 20-foot birdie try on 18 she had an almost feral look in her eye, and stalking off the green she growled an f word loud enough to produce a few titters among her teammates. "That's what she's learned hanging around these crazy girls," said assistant captain Kelly Robbins. When Hjorth missed a six-footer for birdie in the gloaming to give the Americans the victory and deadlock the Cup at eight points apiece, Pressel bellowed, "It's about f—ing time we win one of these matches on 18!"
Inkster, the acting den mother, broke off an interview to admonish her teammates: "Hey, guys, easy on the f bombs!"
When the singles began the next morning, the Americans' language was a tad more restrained, but not their play. Creamer set the tone from the leadoff spot with a 3-and-2 thumping of Pettersen, the world No. 6 who wore the goat horns after going 1-4. (Creamer now has a gaudy 8-2-4 record, including 3-0 in singles.) Wie was out third against one of Europe's best and most experienced players — Alfredsson, 44, the Euros' Solheim captain two years ago. In the most electric sequence of the week, Alfredsson pured her second shot on the par-5 2nd hole to within four feet; then, from 213 yards out, Wie responded by knocking it inside her opponent's ball, what she later called "the best shot of my life, ever." When Alfredsson yipped her putt, Wie's eagle won the hole. The back-and-forth match was all square arriving at the tee of the 15th hole, a watery par-5. With Alfredsson in the trees off the tee, Wie showed her new killer instinct, launching a 305-yard bomb that set up the easy birdie that propelled her back into the lead. Still 1 up on the tee of the par-5 18th, Wie smashed another perfect drive and then chased after it like a cocky home run hitter. A laser to the middle of the green assured her of a birdie and the victory. "I played with as much passion as I could, as much desire and hunger as I wanted to," she said.
The remaining Europeans fought hard but were undone by a breathtaking series of American rallies on the back nine. In match four Europe's aging stalwart Laura Davies blew up on the last two holes to hand a half point to Brittany Lang, 24, who had an undefeated debut at 1-0-2. In the fifth match Inkster was 2 down on the 14th tee, but the Hall of Famer simply refused to lose, going on a birdie binge to pull out a hard-fought halve with Gwladys Nocera. In match nine Kim was all square on the 11th tee but won two of the next four holes, versus Elosegui, giving Kim a rousing 3-1 week. The 21-year-old Pressel clinched the Cup by downing Nordqvist to finish off a 2-0-1 showing.
Even after the outcome was determined, the final two matches played on, and members of the European team gathered on the edge of the green to forlornly watch the finish. "Anyone got a fag?" asked one of the caddies, and a pack of Winston Lights was passed around for a final smoke before the players were to face the firing squad, in this case the European press.
Finally the 11th Solheim Cup was in the books, 16-12 to the U.S., and the Americans were free to really whoop it up, beginning with some funky dance moves on the edge of the 18th green. Watching her daughter drop it way down low, Dianna Kim said, "I have no idea where Christina learned to dance like that." Then, en masse, the young Americans began running laps around the green, waving the Stars and Stripes to the delight of the massive galleries. Leading the charge, a huge grin on her face, was Michelle Wie.