PINEHURST, N.C. – Michelle Wie didn’t just give us a defining moment Sunday in her breakthrough victory in a major championship.
Her U.S. Women’s Open victory was too massive in importance to the women’s game to be contained in a single moment.
No, she gave us a pair of poignant bookend moments that served as the perfect microcosm of her golfing life. She did so in the pivotal turn of fortune at the 16th and 17th holes.
The 16th is where the game knocked her down, and the 17th is where she got up off the mat and threw the knockout punch that won her first major championship.
The 16th is where it looked as if she was going to fail to deliver on all the promise she built in a Sunday of masterful course management. It’s where she pushed a shot right of the green and nearly lost it in a thick patch of wire grass. It’s where a frantic scramble finally ended with the discovery of her embedded ball.
An unplayable lie, a penalty drop and a double bogey left Wie with a slim one-shot lead on Rolex world No. 1 Stacy Lewis, who was in the clubhouse looking as if she just might already have one hand on the Harton S. Semple trophy.
Wie, though, followed with the most thrilling birdie of her life at the par-3 17th, rolling in a 25-foot putt that ignited a roar echoing beyond the entire village of Pinehurst and into every corner of women’s golf.
“She shook off what happened at the 16th pretty quickly,” said Duncan French, her caddie. “It was a massive bounce back.”
With a two-putt for par at the last, Wie brought home a two-shot victory over Lewis.
“That’s Michelle,” Lewis said. “She’s a fighter. She never gives up.”
And that’s really the story of more than Sunday’s victory for Wie.
“I’m so happy I can’t think straight,” Wie said.
Wie, 24, almost won one of these trophies when she was 16, but the can’t-miss prodigy did miss more than anyone thought as an embattled teen phenom growing up.
All the promise she showed contending in women’s majors before she could even drive a car got lost in a series of disappointing turns. There were injuries. There was a broken wrist, a severe ankle sprain and bulging disc in her back. There was lost confidence when her swing went awry in bad habits trying to play through injury.
Through it all, there was suffocating scrutiny, escalating pressure and unrelenting criticism of her parents’ intense involvement in every facet of her game.
Wie said all of that made Sunday so much more meaningful.
“I think life is just so ironic," Wie said. "I think that without your downs, without the hardships, I don't think you appreciate the ups as much as you do. I think the fact that I struggled so much, the fact that I kind of went through a hard period of my life, the fact that this trophy is right next to me, it means so much more to me than it ever would have when I was 15.
“I learned a lot. I am just so grateful for that, just because of everything I've been through. I feel extremely lucky.”
A little more than a year ago, Wie had plummeted to No. 100 in the Rolex world rankings. She’ll jump to No. 7 this week, thanks to her second victory of the season.
While Lewis might be the best player in the women’s game, Wie is the biggest star. Her resurging status is good for the sport. She brings more eyeballs to the TV and more spectators to tournaments. Her peers get this.
“Michelle Wie winning, I don't think you can script it any better,” Lewis said. “I think it's great for the game of golf. I think it's even better for women's golf.”
Wie could easily have lost this championship with the errant approach at the 16th. Her heart and spirit were tested as much as her skill.
“I learned from the past, in those situations,” Wie said. “For sure, you can go down the road and go, `Oh, my God, I'm going to make a triple. I'm going to make a quadruple. What's going to happen? I'm going to lose the U.S. Open.’ I just shut that off. And I'm just really proud of myself for being able to do that.”
Wie might remember the 16th as the best double bogey of her life. She had to make a nervy 5-foot putt to keep a one-shot lead on Lewis.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is that I just didn’t let it get away from me,” Wie said.
Wie won this championship long before she got here.
She won it taking charge of her game inside and outside the ropes. She won it going to an unorthodox “table-top” putting stroke that nobody outside her family seemed to like. She won it taking the reins of her career away from her parents. Back at the season opener in the Bahamas, she traveled to a tournament for the first time without her parents.
“Sometimes, she rebels,” David Leadbetter, her swing coach, told GolfChannel.com back in February after the season opener. “She’s a young woman now, and she has demanded more freedom.”
Leadbetter predicted a rebirth for Wie back then, the start of what would be remembered as her second career.
Lewis saw it, and so did other players. She saw it in the way Wie stuck with her unorthodox putting stroke. She saw it in the way she was handling her parents. She saw it in the way she blocks out all the scrutiny and criticism she gets.
“I think it’s the way she can make decisions without caring what anyone thinks,” Lewis said.
Wie’s decisions are carrying her back to the top of her sport, and a lot of people who love the women’s game believe she can take the rest of women’s golf to heights it has never been.