ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Somewhere in the cosmos Old Tom Morris must be scratching his head.
Young Tom Morris, too.
Really, aren’t we all?
Michelle Wie is impossible to figure out, but here she is again, sitting atop a major championship leaderboard after blistering Kingsbarns Golf Links with an 8-under-par 64, a course record for women and the third lowest score posted in any Women’s British Open since it became a major in 2001.
Three weeks after withdrawing from the U.S. Women’s Open with a neck injury, Wie looks back on track to a resurgent year as the early leader in Scotland.
Through the years, Wie has taken many detours on that road to greatness we all thought she was navigating as a teen phenom, some of them awful turns where we were sure, “Yeah, this time she is lost for good.”
Yet here she is again, flashing more promise.
Here on the outskirts of St. Andrews, Wie’s efforts leave a special impression. Old Tom and Young Tom are buried at the St. Andrews Cathedral Graveyard just seven miles down the road from Kingsbarns. The Old Course, the Home of Golf, is just eight miles down that same road.
“The fact that I got the course record today, that’s a huge honor for me,” Wie said.
The American left the morning wave one shot ahead of South Korea’s In-Kyung Kim and two ahead of fellow American Lindy Duncan.
Wie cautioned it’s only Thursday, but she has her eye on the bigger prize, on adding another major championship title to the U.S. Women’s Open she won three years ago.
“Winning the Women's British Open has always been a huge goal of mine,” Wie said. “That's a long way from now. I'm just really proud of myself, for how I set myself up the first day.”
Wie’s 64 is topped in Women’s British Open major history only by Mirim Lee’s 62 in the first round at Woburn last year and by Minea Blomqvist’s 62 in the third round at Sunningdale in 2004.
After a rough start Thursday, Wie was all smiles coming home, making birdies at the last three holes, six of the last eight.
“I skulled a lob wedge on the second hole, which is nice, straight over the green, so started with that bogey,” Wie said. “Kind of got me a little pissed for a little bit. But it was fun out there.”
Wie, 27, has made many of us scratch our heads in the unorthodox ways she navigates her way back from all the detours, from all the injuries and slumps.
Notably, her 64 didn’t come with three different putting grips within the round, something she has been doing quite effectively this summer, rotating among conventional, left-hand low and claw grips during a single round. She stuck with the left-hand low throughout Thursday’s round.
This was as conventional as we’ve seen Wie set up over putts in a long time. No tabletop stance. No quasi-Nicklaus crouch. No potpourri of grips.
Wie said playing the Ladies Scottish Open last week helped her sort out a putting approach.
“I came over to Scotland last week and it was so windy that I couldn't really do the claw,” Wie said. “It just was moving all over the place, so just tried to figure something out that I could putt on links. So I'm glad I came over last week so I could figure all that out.”
That doesn’t mean we might not see other grips before Sunday comes.
“That could change,” she said.
Wie’s ball striking was impressive. She hit 13 of 14 fairways and all but one green in regulation.
“Michelle’s normal ball flight is pretty low,” said David Leadbetter, her swing coach. “She probably has more lag in her swing than anybody on tour except, maybe, Lexi Thompson. By lag, I mean how her hands are leading the club to such a large extent that she is always de-lofting the club. It is perfect for windy conditions.”
While Wie’s new stock fade will be tested in higher winds, Leadbetter said she can hold shots against the wind with straighter ball flights.
“The good thing with Michelle, is she has such an array of shots, and she has a lot of variety with her short game,” Leadbetter said.
Wie has an array of eclectic weapons, too. She put up her 64 with an 11-wood and a 9-wood in her bag.
“The 11-wood replaces my 5-iron, the 9-wood my 4-hybrid,” Wie said.
After breaking through to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst in 2014, Wie lost her way again, with left hip, back and knee injuries preceding a slump. She hasn’t won since.
With a new stock fade this year, with her more upright putting stance, Wie has righted herself again, with form that has launched her into contention more regularly.
Wie had four finishes of T-4 or better in a five-tournament stretch this summer, before the neck injury struck. She withdrew in pain during the third round of the U.S. Women’s Open in Bedminster, N.J., just three weeks ago.
“I just hopped over to New York City, and my doctor is over there, and had an epidural and a block injection,” Wie said. “It went very well, was very successful.”
Wie was asked if she’s finally feeling injury free.
“I am not going to answer that question, because I feel like every time I say I'm good, something happens,” Wie said. “Fingers crossed. Knock on wood.”
Leadbetter says Wie’s improving game is growing her confidence, her ambitions with it.
“People are saying she doesn’t really have the desire to be No. 1, but I can tell you she has a great desire to be No. 1, no two ways about it,” Leadbetter said. “I’ve told her I think her best golf is ahead of her. I really believe that. She has the talent, and with the belief, if she stays healthy, she can be a real factor for the next two or three years.”