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Wie battling injuries, new swing as she defends Open

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EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 13: Lizette Salas of the United States and caddie look on during day one of the Evian Championship at Evian Resort Golf Club on September 13, 2018 in Evian-les-Bains, France. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Michelle Wie can tell you a lot about the Harton S. Semple Trophy that you didn’t know.

She can tell you the lid on the trophy makes a snappy party hat.

She can tell you sangria tastes better when it’s served from the trophy.

“Kind of used it as a punch bowl,” Wie said.

She can also tell you the trophy holds 21½ beers.

If the U.S. Women’s Open trophy could talk, it could tell some colorful stories about its year with Wie, who claimed the trophy winning the championship at Pinehurst. The trophy could tell you about her victory party, about how Wie’s upside-down twerking as a victory dance became a viral YouTube hit.

“That trophy had a lot of fun,” Wie told as she prepares to defend her title this week at the U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club, 80 miles west of Philadelphia.

Wie, 25, eagerly shared her delight as the trophy’s winner with friends and supporters. She also honored it with a “prime spot” in her home in Jupiter, Fla. She set it up on a coffee table where she could see it as much as possible.

“It was a constant reminder to me every time I walked past it,” Wie said.

Her swing coach, David Leadbetter, can tell you exactly what the trophy reminded Wie of, because he knew what hoisting it for the first time meant to her as he watched the trophy presentation on the 18th green at Pinehurst.


Photos: Images from the 2014 U.S. Women's Open

“I’ll always remember how happy she looked with the trophy,” Leadbetter said. “I’ll remember the joy, the great smile, how ecstatic she was. It was like she was able to actually hold something in her hands that showed, ‘Hey, I’m not just a child prodigy. All the hard work, all the sacrifices, all the down times, they were all worth it.’ It was heartwarming seeing that.”

Wie’s victories last year at the Lotte Championship in her Hawaiian home and at the U.S. Women’s Open were transforming. She rewrote her story. She went from cautionary tale, the can’t-miss kid struggling to live up to all her promise, to a completely different narrative. Suddenly, she was an inspirational tale of perseverance. She was the broken player who put herself back together. She won her first major championship after multiple injuries, swoons, slumps and unrelenting criticism made it look like she would never win one.

Wie emerged early last year playing the best golf of her life.

Her run from the Kraft Nabisco, where she lost to Lexi Thompson in a final-round duel in the year’s first major, through her U.S. Women’s Open victory, held a new kind of promise. Wie racked up eight top-10 finishes over nine starts that included two victories, a second and two third-place finishes.

Wie left Pinehurst looking capable of becoming the best player in the women’s game. With her driver working, with her putting better than ever, she was a force in the first two majors of the year.

“It’s definitely the most consistent I’ve ever played,” Wie said. “And that was my goal at the beginning of the year, to be consistent.”

Wie arrives at Lancaster Country Club this week with all that momentum lost. She is far from the splendid form she took into last year’s U.S. Women’s Open. She has missed the cut or withdrawn from three of her last four starts. She doesn’t have a top-10 finish this year.

Once more, Wie looks like a broken player trying to put herself back together again.

“It’s definitely been frustrating,” Wie said. “There have been things I haven’t been able to control this year, a series of unfortunate events. But at the same time, they’re things that make me a stronger person, that make me believe harder and work harder.”

Wie started this year grinding through the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic with what she thought was the flu. It turned out to be strep throat, which then morphed into a sinus infection during the Asian swing.

Now, she’s rebounding from a hip injury that forced her into an emergency overhaul of her swing.

“It’s been frustrating for everybody,” Leadbetter said. “We looked at last year as a springboard to some really great stuff, but it hasn’t happened. It’s been a sort of ho-hum year, nothing really exciting going on. But, I think she’s handling it all really well. She just needs to find a little spark to get her going. If anyone can find it, it’s Michelle.”

Over the last six weeks, Leadbetter and trainer David Donatucci have been scrambling to help Wie rebuild her body and swing. She’s playing with a new, significantly narrower stance designed to alleviate stress on her left hip, knee and ankle.

“I know some people think she’s making too much of it, but she really was hurt,” Leadbetter said. “When you have pain, when your body is in a state of disrepair, it’s difficult to fight your way through it. The golf swing is tough enough when the body’s completely healthy.”

Wie withdrew after the first round of the Kingsmill Championship in the middle of May with pain in her left hip. It was diagnosed as bursitis, an inflammation of the joint, a malady caused by wear and tear over time.

Wie teed it up in her next start at the ShopRite Classic two weeks later with the new, narrower stance.

“The stance is a little different, the movement is a little different and the swing plane is a lot better,” Donatucci said. “She was so wide in the path, the only thing her body could really do is move left, and move left violently.”

At 6 feet, with her long arms and legs, Wie was generating a lot of power with a compact swing. She won the U.S. Women’s Open winding powerfully around hips that barely seemed to rotate on the backswing.

“Although in many respects that swing was pretty sound mechanically, it was very short and very tight and very wound up,” Leadbetter said. “It was creating a lot of stress on her joints. We had to make a compromise. She’s gone back to a narrower stance, to really encourage more of a rotation in the swing, which has gotten the swing a little longer.”

Wie’s swing is looking more like it did when she was a teen phenom, but it’s not quite the same. Leadbetter says Wie’s stance at its widest now is a foot more narrow than it was last year.

“That’s quite substantial,” he said.

Donatucci said all the power Wie generated with her tightly wound swing raced into her left side in a jarring finish. There were signs of trouble even at the U.S. Women’s Open last year, when Wie wore supportive tape around her left knee. Since Kingsmill, she has been wearing tape and a brace on her left ankle.

“She was utilizing her left knee, her left ankle and the outside of her hip to slow down the swing speed,” Donatucci said. “We’re hoping this narrowing of the stance, where she can rotate the hips a lot better, will allow the back of the hip, the butt and the glutes to really be able to absorb the majority of that speed, to help slow her down and decrease the pounding and pressure that’s occurring on the outside of that hip.”

Donatucci said the new swing should help keep Wie from snapping and hyper extending her left knee in her finish.

“I used to be so flexible,” Wie said. “But I’m not as limber as I was when I was 16. This is helping me relax my hips, move them better. When I do it right, and relax my hips, I can swing pretty much pain free.”

Wie has had a cortisone shot and two platelet-rich-plasma injections over the last month or so getting herself ready to defend her title. She has monitored her diet, reducing foods that exacerbate inflammation.

“The pain’s definitely getting better,” Wie said. “I’ve been feeling better and better every week, and I’m excited to play.”

The real challenge has been overhauling Wie’s swing with practice time limited by the injury, but Wie has one advantage other players don’t this week. She has the memory of last year’s U.S. Women’s Open victory emboldening her. Specifically, she has the memory of last year’s late bounce back, when she went from looking as if she were blowing the Open with a double bogey at the 16th hole in the final round to securing the title with a terrific birdie at the 17th.

Those two holes were a perfect microcosm of Wie’s entire career.

“What happened at the 16th and 17th, those are memories I use even to this day, to remind myself how to handle situations,” Wie said. “Keep calm, always have faith, don’t think too hard in the future. I definitely use those memories as inspiration and motivation. It gives me confidence.”