Brace for Wie-Mania, the second wave, because you know it’s coming.
With the LPGA nearing the end of one of its most tumultuous seasons, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Wherever he was when Wie closed out Sunday’s victory, Michael Whan must have let loose a terrific howl. The newly named LPGA commissioner couldn’t have asked for a better assist in getting his tenure started. Wie’s popularity veers outside golf’s niche sport boundaries. No woman in the game possesses more potential to drive new interest into the women’s game. The LPGA needs all the help it can get with so many daunting challenges ahead in these hard economic times.
“Michelle’s had a pretty darn good rookie year, but I’ve really felt like next year was going to be the big year,” said David Leadbetter, Wie’s long-time swing coach.
That ought to be music to the ears of LPGA fans who understand what she can do for the tour if she can build on Sunday’s victory.
It wasn’t just that Wie won that mattered. It’s the way she won. With a birdie at the final hole at Guadalajara Country Club in Mexico, Wie showed terrific closing skills and steely nerve to beat the biggest names in women’s golf in a tight back-nine battle.
With a sure swipe of her sand wedge, Wie tossed a tough greenside bunker shot within a foot at the final hole to secure a two-shot victory over Paula Creamer.
“As soon as I put it close, I almost cried,” Wie said. “There was so much emotion.”
Wie, 20, acknowledged what you couldn’t help seeing when she climbed out of that last bunker. She almost floated up onto the green. The weight of so many onerous expectations seemed to lift right there at the 72nd hole.
“It’s definitely off my back,” Wie said. “I think that hopefully life will be a lot better, but I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot to improve. It just feels so great right now.”
Wie ended an American drought in a big way. She was the first American to win on tour since Cristie Kerr won the Michelob Ultra Open in May, ending an 0-for-17 run.
Wie has long endured criticism that she took shortcuts to the elite level and never learned how to win, but she showed something holding off Kerr, one of the toughest competitors in women’s golf. They played side by side in Sunday’s final pairing. Wie also fended off challenges from Creamer and a charge from Morgan Pressel. She even beat Jiyai Shin, who is known on tour as “The Final Round Queen.”
Notably, Wie’s first victory came in an event hosted by Ochoa, the No. 1 ranked player in women’s golf. That Wie may be putting the pieces together to realize all her promise and challenge Ochoa at the game’s highest level will fuel Wie-Mania II. All Wie’s work with Leadbetter, her confident new putting stroke inspired in work with Dave Stockton, are coming together to revive hope that she’ll yet be a Tigress-like force in women’s golf.
We glimpsed Wie’s rebuilt confidence at the Solheim Cup in September, where she looked like an unstoppable dynamo. In the aftermath of the American victory, LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster predicted Wie would win before the year was out and Wie didn’t disappoint in the year’s second-to-last event.
Wie said her Solheim Cup performance was a factor in Sunday’s victory.
“It put me in such high pressure situations,” Wie said. “I learned so much about how to handle high-pressure situations, and I gained so much confidence from that.”
Back when Wie first emerged in golf’s consciousness, everything seemed to come so easily to her, almost too easily. At 12, she qualified for the LPGA’s Takefuji Classic. At 13, she tied for ninth at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. At 14, she played in her first PGA Tour event on a sponsor’s exemption, shooting 68 in the second round of the Sony Open. By 16, she had already finished fifth or better in six LPGA majors.
Through it all, Wie endured heavy criticism that she was given too much, that she hadn’t earned her chances and that her inability to close out a victory was a byproduct of that.
Wie endured more than the sting of criticism. She suffered through a pair of wrist injuries that almost ruined her swing. She struggled to break 80 in LPGA events trying to come back. She endured other difficulties, like being disqualified from the Samsung Invitational in 2005 for signing an incorrect scorecard in her first event as a professional. She drew the ire of Annika Sorenstam at the Ginn Tribute after withdrawing in the middle of a round that looked like it might end with Wie failing to break 88. Wie was accused of withdrawing to avoid a rule that bans non-members for the season if they shoot 88 or worse.
All of this, plus her lucrative million-dollar endorsement deals, made her a lightning rod in women’s golf.
In the end, Sunday’s victory seemed like a reward for hard lessons learned, for hardships endured, and that makes her breakthrough more satisfying for everyone involved.
Notably, Pressel and Brittany Lincicome waited around to congratulate Wie and bathe her in a fizzy, cocktail shower on the 72nd hole. Wie said earning her tour card this year, forging friendships and feeling like she fit in on tour helped her win.
“I’ve been through a lot, a lot of ups and downs, places I never want to go again, but it all makes this so much more delicious,” Wie said. “It feels good knowing I pushed and fought through all of that. I’m proud of the perseverance. I got a lot of help from a lot of people to really fight through that and overcome that and become a better and happier person in general. I’m just really proud of the dedication.”
Note: The final round of the Lorena Ochoa Invitational will air again Monday at 7 p.m.