VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. — When Michelle Wie arrived at the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open as a wide-smiling, big-dreaming 13-year-old, one of the first questions posed to her was whether she could win the national championship.
“I guess everyone comes here to win,” she said at the time. Wie tied for 39th that year, but the subsequent years brought disappointments, frustrations and even more questions.
Wie, 24, finally answered with a definitive yes by winning the 69th U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s Course No. 2. It is her second career USGA championship, but first since she won the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links as a big-hitting 13-year-old.
Wie played poised and confidently throughout, including when she calmly rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole after a double bogey on the previous hole narrowed her lead to one stroke. Wie shot an even-par 70 and finished with a 2-under-par 278 total, two strokes ahead of world No. 1 and fellow American Stacy Lewis, who matched the championship’s low round of 66 and finished at even-par 280.
Stephanie Meadow, of Northern Ireland, who turned professional a week ago, shot a 1-under 69 and finished solo third at 1-over 281. Amy Yang, of the Republic of Korea, the third-round co-leader with Wie, shot a 4-over 74 and finished fourth at 2-over 282. Australian amateur Minjee Lee, with a 2-under 68, and 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu, of Korea, with a 70, tied for fifth at 3-over 283.
Reigning champion Inbee Park, of Korea, never proved to be a factor this week, opening with a 6-over 76 and finishing in a tie for 43rd at 13-over 293.
Earlier in the week, Juli Inkster, 53, announced that this U.S. Women’s Open, her record 35th, would be her final one. She shot a final-round 75 and tied for 15th at 7-over 287.
Inkster’s farewell was not a quiet one.
On the first teeing ground, she received a rousing welcome when announced as the 1999 and 2002 U.S. Women’s Open champion. The cheers and early birthday wishes — she turns 54 on Tuesday — erupted each time she walked past a grandstand. At the 18th green, Inkster was greeted with a standing ovation.
“They were so pulling for me, but it’s really hard to acknowledge them when you’re 5 over par and struggling,” said Inkster, who moved into contention on Saturday with the championship’s low round of 66, which was matched on Sunday by Lewis and Catriona Matthew of Scotland. “It was very nice, especially the reception on No. 1 tee and reception on 18, and all around the golf course. It was great. Very, very, very honored.”
As is Wie.
“I don’t think age really matters,” Wie said. “You can win a U.S. Open when you’re 34 or 24. I think it just doesn’t really matter. It’s just the fact that your name is on the trophy, I think that’s the most important part. And just like I said before, I’m just so honored to be part of that club.”
Her U.S. Women’s Open disappointments include her twice holding or sharing the 54-hole lead. In 2005, as an amateur, she finished with an 82 and tied for 23rd. The following year, she shot a final-round 73 and tied for third, missing out by two strokes on a playoff won by Annika Sorenstam.
The frustrations continued in 2007 and 2013, when she withdrew following opening rounds of 82 and 80, respectively. In 2007 she cited a wrist injury and last year she withdrew because of illness, failing to return to the course with one hole left in her second round on Saturday morning at Sebonack Golf Club.
Precocious is a word often used when referring to Wie, for good reason. As a 13-year-old, she was already nearly 6 feet tall and could drive a ball 300 yards. Though she grew up in the golf spotlight, she has come of age as one of the game’s more dominant players since graduating from Stanford University in June 2012.
Prior to this week, Wie, ranked No. 11 in the world, had posted eight top-10 finishes in 12 starts in 2014. She has three career LPGA victories, including a win at the LPGA Lotte Championship in April.
“I think there was a big stretch of time where I was injured,” said Wie of her career. “My health was not very good. And I worked hard. I never stopped working hard. And no matter how hard I worked, there was a point where I just wasn’t getting any better. But David [Leadbetter, Wie’s instructor] talked to me and he said, ‘You know, sometimes hard work shows overnight and sometimes it shows over a couple of years.’ And, obviously, I think I was on the couple of years track. Being impatient, I just wanted to see it overnight.”
Wie wins her first major at the same age that Annika Sorenstam won the first of her three U.S. Women’s Open titles. It comes at what is considered the home of American golf – and aptly, it is her first professional win on the U.S. mainland.
For the second straight day, Wie bogeyed the first hole. Playing partner Yang also opened with a bogey, and she also three-putted the par-4 second hole for a double bogey on her way to an outward 39 that dropped her down the leader board.
Wie, meanwhile, eased into the rest of her day with eight consecutive pars and appeared unfazed by her pursuers. Early on, Ryu moved to within two strokes at 1 over with three birdies in the first four holes, but that charge stalled with sporadic play over the last 14 holes.
Then there was Lewis, who held the opening-round lead after a bogey-free 67, but followed with rounds of 73 and 74.
Lewis began her day at 4 over for the championship, six strokes back of Wie and Yang. Given that the week’s low round had been a 4-under 66 and that the largest final-round comeback to win was five strokes – done last by Sorenstam in 1995 – Lewis appeared to be the supreme long shot.
After she made her second bogey of the day at the par-4 fourth, Lewis remained five strokes back. She continued to battle, however, and her fifth birdie in nine holes at the 241-yard, par-4 13th hole pulled her to within a stroke of Wie at even par.
Lewis’ charge stalled with bogeys at the 14th and 16th holes, but she was not finished. She birdied the 161-yard, par-3 17th and 391-yard, par-4 18th to keep a bit of pressure on Wie.
“Coming into the day I thought if I could get back to even par it would be a good spot,” Lewis said. “I thought with the pressure of a major and the way this golf course played, I thought I had a chance. On the back nine all I was trying to do was hit good golf shots. And the nerves kind of came in. I made some bad swings, hit some good putts that didn’t go in, but to birdie 17 and 18 and put the pressure on, you can’t ask for a better finish.”
Wie would not be denied this time. At the 452-yard, par-5 10th hole, she extended her lead to three on Lewis by hitting her second shot to within 10 feet and making the eagle putt.
Five more pars were followed by Wie’s biggest drama of the day, at the 453-yard, par-4 16th. Her approach shot buried at the bottom of a clump of wiregrass in a natural sandy area short of the green. With a three-shot lead, Wie took an unplayable lie, played to the center of the green and two-putted for double bogey.
“Stuff happens like that,” said Wie, whose lead was back to one stroke. “It’s a U.S. Open; I just wanted to keep my calm.”
Wie did by hitting her tee shot at the 161-yard, par-3 17th to within 25 feet. The birdie putt was Wie’s 25th one-putt of the championship and gave her some space to enjoy the walk up the 18th.
“It just means so much more to me,” she said. “I think life is just so ironic. 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.”
The win was a long time in coming, but it finally came.