OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Michelle Wie still loves the game.
She may be one of golf’s great mysteries, but that’s what cuts through the fog when you sort through all the riddles in all the twists and turns in a career that makes the 27-year-old seem like she has been around forever.
Wie is the broken player who is putting herself back together yet again.
How is she managing to do it once more? She loves the game. It’s the only explanation.
“You have to hand it to her,” said David Leadbetter, her long-time swing coach. “She’s gutted it out through all the difficult times. She’s hung in there through all the injuries, through all the criticism that so many nasty people have thrown at her, when she could very easily have just chucked in the towel and said ‘This isn’t fun anymore. This isn’t worth it anymore. I’ve got enough money, what the hell am I doing?’ She’s a fighter, she really is.”
Wie arrives for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club this week as a threat to win.
That’s a head scratcher when you think back to a year ago and the awful slump she was mired in when she arrived at this championship. She shot 78 and 80 to miss the cut at Sahalee and left the Great Northwest looking totally lost. She left looking as if she might finally be broken for good.
Wie missed the cut or withdrew in 10 of 12 events last summer.
Just look at her now.
You can’t knock this woman out.
Up off the mat, Wie’s radiating with renewed confidence.
With her final-round 64 Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas championship, Wie tied for fourth. The week before that, she tied for second at the Meijer Classic. The week before that, she tied for third at the ShopRite Classic.
That’s four finishes of T-4 or better now in her last five starts.
“I came into this year really motivated, but feeling like I had nothing to lose,” Wie told GolfChannel.com after hitting balls on the range Tuesday at Olympia Fields.
This is starting to feel like that roll Wie got on before she won twice in 2014, before she won the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst.
“She’s seeing results, and she’s really getting some confidence,” Leadbetter said. “I don’t think she’s far away from winning. I really don’t. She’s got her game to where she could really do some damage the second half of this season.”
Wie’s heating up at the right time with three majors over the next six weeks and with the Solheim Cup just eight weeks away.
“This year just felt like a fresh start,” Wie said.
What has fueled this latest resurgence?
Three things stand out.
*Wie is healthy.
*She has found and grooved a dependable stock fade.
*She has completely turned around her putting with an on-again, off-again claw grip.
Wie used to like to hit her irons with a fairly straight ball flight, while hitting a draw with her driver. Now, she hits a fade nearly all the time, with her irons and woods.
“I’ve been a streaky player in the past, so I was just trying to find more consistency, to be able to hit more fairways when I needed to,” Wie said.
She actually found the fade last season.
“I changed to it last year, which I think is a reason I struggled,” said Wie, a four-time LPGA winner. “Anytime you try to change your ball flight, it takes time.”
Wie ditched her unorthodox table-top putting stance after missing the cut in the season opener in the Bahamas this year. She said she hit the ball great there but putted awfully. Frustrated, she sought out Leadbetter at the Honda Classic near her home in Jupiter, coaxing him away from the PGA Tour pros to go work with her at the Bear’s Club.
“That was the turning point for me,” Wie said.
That’s where Leadbetter made a radical suggestion.
“He proposed I putt with the claw grip,” Wie said. “It’s funny how things work with David and I, how he will suggest something that I’ve been thinking about.
“I tinkered around with it, and it felt good.”
As is Wie’s way, she has tinkered with Leadbetter’s suggestion, putting her own distinctive signature on the claw.
At first, she went all claw, with a Sergio-style claw grip. Then she modified it, going to a version of a claw setup. She would set up with the claw grip, then move her hand back to a conventional grip just before taking the putter back. The key to that move was keeping her elbow bent as if she was still in the claw grip.
“With the conventional grip, she kept her elbow bent as if she was still in the claw grip, almost like a violinist, working back and forth on a constant plane and arc,” Leadbetter said.
Today, Wie still has some weird science working for her, and she’s OK with that. Now, she’s setting up consistently in the claw grip, sometimes making the stroke with it, sometimes moving back into a conventional grip, just before taking the putter back.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Leadbetter said. “She says her brain tells her what’s comfortable when she’s about to make the stroke, and she just goes with it.”
Lydia Ko used to alternate her grips during a round, going from left-hand low to conventional. She would go left-hand low for shorter putts, conventional for longer putts.
Wie confirms it doesn’t work like that for her.
“I make my decision as I’m over the ball,” Wie said. “I call it the ‘Whatever System.’ But I feel great about it.”
Leadbetter likes Wie’s consistent upright posture and stance, whether she goes claw or not.
“Putting is such a catalyst to everything,” Leadbetter said. “Look, you can hit the ball great, but if you can’t capitalize on the shot you hit ... She’s making putts, and she’s making lengthy putts.”
Leadbetter knows he may never cure Wie of her love of tinkering, but he also knows that’s how her creative mind works. It keeps her loving the game.