With 67, here comes Michelle Wie

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In the year's first major, a seemingly renewed Michelle Wie shoots an opening-round 67.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- A brand new and improved Michelle Wie?

Could be.

Her opening round 5-under 67 Thursday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the year, certainly goes a long way toward supporting the argument. Nothing pleads the case quite like a day's work of four birdies and an eagle, powered by a 5-under four-hole stretch on Nos. 9 through 12, that rests her one shot behind leader Shanshan Feng and tied with Se Ri Pak.

If Wie finally is poised to ascend to heights anticipated for so long, the real indicator is not as much the round she played at Mission Hills Country Club but what she said about it afterward.

I'm really happy. I feel like my game's coming along. Really enjoying the game. Really feeling like I'm almost becoming like a little bit of a golf nerd.
Michelle Wie

"I'm much more appreciative of it," she said.

It seems possible that Wie finally has found comfort in her own skin. Gone are the black fingernail polish, the dour and hollow look, the often sagging shoulders.

Wie looks very natural with a comfortable smile.

"Yeah, for sure. I'm really happy," she said. "I feel like my game's coming along. Really enjoying the game. Really feeling like I'm almost becoming like a little bit of a golf nerd."

Golf nerd?

"Just get excited when you're out on the golf course," she said. "You look at the yardage book, see little things. I remember Beth Daniel showed me her yardage book from Kraft Nabisco. I got excited from the grain directions. Just talking a lot about golf. I guess that would be the definition."

Although she has been one of the most recognizable names in women's golf since before America even heard of an aspiring politician named Barack Obama, Wie is only 24 years of age.

Her curse is that for almost a decade now, golf has been waiting -- not all that patiently -- for the one-time teenage prodigy to fulfill what was assumed to be a birthright.

She's been a victim of her own expectations.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In five events this season, Michelle Wie has not finished outside the top 16.

At age 10, Wie became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship. Then she became the youngest winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.

In 2003, at 13, she played in the Kraft Nabisco, making herself the youngest player to make an LPGA cut, then carded a third-round 66 to play in the final group and finished ninth.

Two years later, one week before turning 16 in October 2005, she went professional, trumpeted with a mega promotional campaign and over-the-moon expectations. On cue, the next season she finished tied for third in the Kraft Nabisco, tied for fifth in the LPGA Championship and tied for third in the U.S. Women's Open.

The Golf Hall of Fame could have begun bidding out construction of the Wie Wing. Except, since then, Wie has managed only two LPGA wins, the last in 2010, and only two top-10 finishes in 25 major appearances.

The frustration-building pressure has not been a pretty thing to watch.

"I think you all know when you aren't playing well, when you're struggling with the game, when it's difficult, it's not as fun," Wie said. "I got frustrated a lot. Even during those times, I still loved it. ... I really wanted to do well. I was working hard at it. Just wasn't getting any better. It was frustrating, very frustrating for me."

Now the burden seems to be lifting.

In five events this year coming into this week, Wie has not finished outside the top 16. She is fifth on tour in scoring average (69.85) and second in greens hit in regulation.

She also leads the league in compliments, directed at how happy she seems.

"I think I'm just really appreciating the game," she said. "Obviously I went through a lot of hard times and good times. Just knowing how much I've been through, I think I'm just really appreciating the fact I can go out here and play the game I love for a living. I just realize how lucky I am, how lucky I am to be here."

Revenge of the golf nerd.

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