PINEHURST, N.C. – Many golfers can tell you about their renaissance.
That point in time at which things began to click, when a game that had seemed so difficult for so long suddenly felt easy again. When the hours spent on the range finally began to translate into results on the course.
Few if any, though, can tell you about such a rebirth at age 24. Then there’s Michelle Wie.
Although she still has to pay a little extra when renting a car, Wie is making her 11th appearance in the U.S. Women’s Open this week. She’s been playing in the USGA’s marquee event for nearly as long as Lucy Li has been alive, and Wie has been on the national radar even longer.
Her prominence in the game has been debated for years, often seen as a mixture of raw talent and marketing hype. Whatever the source, her brand-name recognition caused her recent decline to resonate more strongly, but it also created a bigger stage for her return to relevance this year.
Arriving to Pinehurst No. 2 with unbridled confidence, Wie believes her renaissance is underway.
“I really feel like I’m kind of starting the second part of my career,” Wie said Tuesday. “I think a golf career, you’re going to have ups, you’re going to have downs. It’s not a short career, it’s a very long career. I’m in it for the long run.”
She would know better than most about both the ups and the downs. At just 16 years old, she was ranked third when the initial Rolex Rankings were published in 2006, but watched as her performance began to fade and her spot in the standings followed suit. Just last year, she was outside the top 100. And Wie was ranked 80th in the world when Meg Mallon surprised many by adding her to the Solheim Cup team last summer.
Since then, though, she has turned things around in a hurry and enters this week with a rare asset: results.
Hardly seen as a consistent player, Wie has been just that this year on the LPGA tour, with eight top-10 finishes in 12 starts highlighted by a runner-up finish at the season’s first major and a win at the LPGA Lotte Championship, the third of her career and first in her native Hawaii.
After beginning the year ranked 61st, Wie has rocketed all the way to 11th in the world heading into the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I’m just having a lot of fun playing,” she said. “I feel that I came into the year saying that I want to be more consistent and I feel like I’m kind of on track.”
The evolution is clear, even to some of her closest competitors.
"It's like she's a different person," said world No. 2 Stacy Lewis. "She's grown up, she's taken ownership of her game. Her relationship with her parents and her family is so much better. She's out there calling the shots instead of the other way around, and it's great to see because she's playing golf and having fun with it."
One of the longer hitters on the LPGA for the past several years, Wie drew some questions, if not a few snickers, when she switched to her current “table top” putting style, with her back arched at nearly a 90 degree angle.
While her style certainly appears unorthodox, a funny thing has happened: since the switch, her putting has gotten better – a lot better – and the results have followed.
“My putting stance is kind of what I feel comfortable with,” said Wie, who ranks fourth on the LPGA in putts per GIR this year after finishing 119th in the same category in 2012. “I think I still need to get better, but I think I’m definitely on the right track. It may look funny, but it feels good to me.”
Wie held the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2005 before a final-round 82, then tied for third the following year. Since then, though, she has struggled in this event, making the cut only twice and finishing no better than a tie for 35th in 2012.
While she is playing some of the best golf of her career, she admits that there is more on the line this week than usual.
“I get really excited for the U.S. Opens and I try not to put so much pressure on myself, but I always end up doing so,” Wie said.
Coping with added pressure, especially on a course as demanding as Pinehurst No. 2, seems like a difficult proposition. But Wie now carries with her more experience than most in this week’s field, a fact that belies her relative youth.
During her press conference, Wie was asked about the athletic tape she wore during her practice round, which she is using to treat what she described as a minor, though nagging, knee injury.
“I just feel like I’m getting old,” she said. “I’m not 13 anymore and tapeless.”
The statement encapsulates Wie’s unique position within the women’s game: a seasoned veteran, but still viewed as a rising star. An established player, but one that may just now be tapping into her potential.
At 24, Wie is embarking on a new chapter in her career, one that has defied convention for more than a decade. With a win this week at Pinehurst, the theme of that story could take yet another dramatic shift.