Embers of ambition reignited in Michelle Wie this year.
Joy returned to her game.
You could see it in that fist pump when she buried the birdie putt that helped seal her U.S. Women’s Open victory on the 71st hole at Pinehurst. You could see it in the tweeted photo that went viral with her head buried in the Harton S. Semple Trophy as she guzzled a celebratory drink at a victory party later that night. You could see it again in a video that also went viral showing her doing some gravity defying twerking at that same party.
“She loves the game again,” says David Leadbetter, her swing coach. “Her passion is back.”
With her victory near her Hawaiian home at the Lotte Championship in April and her major championship breakthrough winning the U.S. Women’s Open in June, Wie showed in 2014 that she is prepared to be a consistent force in the women’s game. She left the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship hungry to build on all she achieved this year. She left making it clear she isn’t done making news.
“I worked really hard all year to try and get to No. 1,” Wie said. “I was really close. That kind of gets me going for next year. Something to look forward to. Really motivates me.”
Wie is No. 6 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She was No. 103 a little more than a year before winning at Pinehurst.
Leadbetter believes Wie hasn’t reached her summit in this hard climb back. With her health returning, with her skills and confidence coming back, Leadbetter believes Wie has started a “second act” to her career that could be something special.
“Michelle’s heading up the ladder, and there’s no reason she can’t climb all the way to No. 1, if she can stay injury free,” Leadbetter said. “Nobody out here has the shot making ability she does, and her short game is underrated. She can hit these little flops and spinners and has a variety of shots nobody else has.
“And her putting is steady now. I won’t say it’s brilliant, but she’s much more comfortable with her putting now. I really believe if she stays injury free, her best is still to come.”
Wie’s resurgence was good for the entire women’s game. Even her rivals saw that, with NBC’s U.S. Women’s Open TV ratings boosted to 1.7 in the final round, a 92 percent increase over 2013’s final round.
Wie may not be the best player in the women’s game yet, but she is its biggest star. Her rivals see that, too.
“Michelle Wie winning, I don't think you can script it any better,” said Stacy Lewis, who was Rolex world No. 1 when she finished second to Wie at the U.S. Women’s Open. “I think it's great for the game of golf. I think it's even better for women's golf.”
So does Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, who watched Wie win and thought about how she and so many other players of her generation benefited playing with the popular Nancy Lopez in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
“People came out to watch Nancy, and some of them watched me,” Bradley said. “Nancy did that for my generation, and I can see Michelle doing that for this generation. She can move the needle for the LPGA like Tiger did for the PGA Tour. This young lady has very broad shoulders.”
Wie entered 2014 insisting all she wanted was to become more consistent. In the end, her overall stats were as revealing as her two victories. She finished the year third in scoring average (69.81), fourth in money winnings ($1,924,796), third in greens in regulation (77 percent) and fourth in putts per greens in regulation (1.764). They’re all career bests. She logged 13 top-10 finishes, another career best.
Wie won the inaugural Rolex Annika Major Award for the best overall performance in women’s majors this year. Though her Sunday duel with Lexi Thompson came up short at the Kraft Nabisco, it was another early sign Wie was putting together all the pieces in her game. If not for a finger injury that kept her out of competition for parts of almost three months in the second half of the season, Wie might have made an even harder challenge for the game’s big awards. She was diagnosed with a “stress reaction” to her right index finger after hitting out of a divot at the Marathon Classic in late July, but she looked good when she did finally make a full return at year’s end. She was top five in three of her last five starts.
“I'm really proud of myself and appreciative of everything that's happened this year,” Wie said. “So many great things have happened. I really can't complain. I'm so grateful, and I'm really looking forward to 2015.”