Michelle Wie West stood alone off the 17th green at Pine Needles early Friday afternoon, the reality setting in. She turned her gaze toward the large video board in the distance, the one that revealed the cut line for the US Women’s Open. There was but one hole remaining. Wie West knew she wasn’t going to be around for the weekend.
Her playing partners finished their putting and Wie West began walking toward No. 18. Before she did, she veered to her right and toward the yellow rope. On the other side there was a family who’d come to watch Wie West — a husband and wife and their 23-year-old daughter, in a wheelchair. They were about to experience a moment they’ll remember for a long time.
“My daughter’s disabled,” Michael Rheaume said. “She loves golf and has always liked Michelle Wie, so we kind of gravitate towards her.”
Now Wie West was gravitating toward them. She walked toward the woman in the wheelchair and knelt down and handed her a ball, the one Wie West had just putted into the hole for a par on No. 17. On the ball, Wie West had written in black marker the name of her daughter — “KENNA,” it said, short for McKenna — along with a little heart beneath the TaylorMade logo.
Just as quickly as she’d arrived, Wie West was gone, on her way to the final hole. In her wake from her she’d left something lasting. The Rheaumes celebrated, each one taking turns holding the ball, examining it, thanking Wie West for the souvenir and for taking a brief moment to make an impression they’d never forget.
“That’s why we love that lady,” said Michael Rheaume, and on Friday his wife, Vicki, and daughter, Sara, were watching Wie West in person for the first time.
“We came here to follow her because we know this could be her last US Open in the area,” he said, “and we wanted to at least cheer her on.”
Next to him, his daughter turned her new prized possession over and over in her fingertips.
“I really like her ball that she gave me,” she said.
sense of contentment
Wie West is now 32 years old, a young age that somehow seems older given how long she has been a part of our sporting consciousness. Michelle Wie was once an early teen prodigy, the subject of “60 Minutes” profiles and endless ESPN hype and books and magazine covers; a wonderchild who was noted as The Next Big Thing. And now, all of a sudden, it’s all but over.
Entering this US Women’s Open, she announced her impending retirement; that she was going to play in this event, at Pine Needles, and play in the 2023 Open, at Pebble Beach. And then that’d be it. Two more events—and now one more, after Wie West finished Friday 5—over overall through the first two rounds, two short shots of making the cut.
And so her long walk on Friday around 18 holes of tall pines and hot, sandy brush represented something of a farewell. Or, at least a farewell before The Farewell, the one that’ll come next year at Pebble Beach. The most joyous and triumphant moment of Wie West’s golfing life came just eight years ago, and five miles down the road, when she won the 2014 US Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
She was 24 then, the same age as Annika Sorenstam was when she won her first US Open, and it felt in the moment like Wie might meet or exceed all of those burdensome expectations, after all. Instead Wie West has never in another major duplicated her mastery of Pinehurst in ’14. Earlier this week, she said, her experience of her there remained “a blur,” a kind of out-of-body experience.
“I walked in Pinehurst Village this morning to get coffee,” she said earlier this week, looking back at 2014. “Funny enough, I don’t remember anything about the week …
“I think I drove by Pinehurst No. 2 (and) I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s a cool golf course.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s Pinehurst No. 2.’ I’m like, I don’t remember that at all. I think I just blacked out that week.”
If she hadn’t won that US Open eight years ago, if she was still chasing her first, she would’ve not been so ready to announce her retirement, Wie West said here earlier this week. Instead she she “would still be out here playing and chasing that win,” she said. The 2014 victory at Pinehurst, then, offered her a sense of contentment, even if she doesn’t recall all the details.
Never mind that it remains Wie West’s first and only victory in a US Open, or any other major, for that matter. Never mind that her prodigal talent, as a preteen and early teenager, portended greater things. Wie West has found satisfaction, nonetheless, along a golfing journey that hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.
She has won but five times on the LPGA Tour and just once since 2014. A recurring wrist injury limited Wie West in 2018 and ’19. She did n’t play at all in 2020 after the birth of her daughter de ella, McKenna, and last year she made the cut in just two of the six events she entered. Yet to watch Wie West is to watch someone who is at peace with her limits de ella these days, and with the road she has followed to reach this point.
Her up-and-down round on Friday provided further proof of that. After a birdie on the opening hole she bogeyed three of the next four before birdies on No. 8 and No. 11 provided hope, however briefly, that she might muster enough to stick around on the weekend. But then came three more bogeys and a 3-over 74 for the day.
Still, Wie West remains a main attraction. A packed gallery, which grew in size, followed her every move on Friday. It included a sizable number of little girls, some of them dressed in golf attire, all of them too young to have been alive when Wie West represented a certain kind of destiny. Now she represented an ideal. She might’ve not won as often as everyone assumed she would have, but she’d influenced an untold number of girls, nonetheless.
A group of them were waiting for her as Wie West trudged up on the 17th fairway. For one of the few times of the day, it finally looked as though her long round of her was getting to her, but here were four girls, probably around 10 or so, waiting in a line along the ropes. Their dads stood nearby eating pizza, and one of them asked the group if they were ready to walk to another hole.
No, one of the girls replied. They were waiting for Wie West to walk past.
And as she did the girls quietly counted down — “one … two … three,” they said, together — before yelling with as much might as they could: “Go Michelle Wie!” And Wie West, on her way to another missed cut, eight years removed from reigning over the sport and fulfilling her promise during one glorious week just down the road from here, turned and smiled and waved.
‘A great example’
She looked a little tired then and almost glum, momentarily, after another bogey on 17. Mostly, though, Wie West met her fate on the course with a kind of peaceful acceptance. Life had changed her and offered doses of perspective. Since she won at Pinehurst No. 2, she’d married and dealt with the frustration of injury and become a mother.
She’d learned, she said after her round on Friday, that this game she has played for so long is supposed to be fun. And so she dedicated herself to making it that way, which is why she found time to smile even as her score de ella, relative to par, continued to rise.
“There were times where I was very intense in my career on the golf course,” Wie West said, “but I soon learned that just — it’s a game, still. Even though it’s your job, golf is still a game. It’s a great game, and it’s a long time to be out there if you’re not having fun.
“So I decided I was going to have fun on the golf course.”
She woke up on Friday feeling good, and hopeful. She did a Wordle for the first time, she said, and came up with the answer on the second guess, a high that left her feeling “undefeatable.”
“Then it was a gradual decline after that,” she said.
And yet Wie West still managed to make some people’s days. Maybe not her own. But the little girls who lined the ropes chanting her name de ella, and who received a smile and a wave in return. And Sara Rheaume, the young woman in the wheelchair who received a memento she’ll treasure.
Her father tried to explain what it was about Wie West the family admired.
“I’m an educator and my wife’s a nurse practitioner, so we admire her because she finished college, played the pro tour and now is a mom, and did all those things,” Michael Rheaume said. “So, a great example for our two daughters.”
Wie West was heading toward the 18th tee now, a large crowd following her. Soon enough she was walking up the fairway, and she said later that she began to tear up at the reception, knowing that she was making this walk for one of the final times in a US Open — and for the final time in Este Open, so geographically close to the site of her greatest professional achievement.
Spectators in the gallery jockeyed for position, trying to catch a glimpse as she walked past. Back near 17, Michael Rheaume hustled to catch up, and began directing his daughter from him to the next fairway. She where they were going and her answer came quickly: “We’re going to watch Michelle,” he asked, and now it was one of the last times anyone could.
This story was originally published June 3, 2022 7:39 PM.