Michelle Wie primed to deliver

PINEHURST, N.C. -- There was a time when Michelle Wie would try to hit a shot just because she knew she was capable of it.

Didn't matter if it was the smartest shot to take under the circumstances. It didn't even matter if she pulled it off.

It was more like, "Hey, I bet I can do this," regardless of whether it made sense, as if she couldn't quite resist the temptation.

There also was a time when Wie seemed to forget she had some natural gifts a lot of other golfers didn't. And then she would be too tentative for someone so talented.

"I went through a phase where I was too aggressive," said Wie, who after a two-day score of 4-under 136 leads the U.S. Women's Open by three shots over fellow American Lexi Thompson. "I think I went through a phase where I was maybe not aggressive enough. I think I've learned from both situations."

Now Wie can show that on the biggest stage women's golf provides. There has been elevated interest in this tournament because of the experiment of holding it back-to-back on the same Pinehurst No. 2 course as the U.S. Open.

It's hard to imagine there would be a greater time, for the LPGA's sake, for Wie to win her first major championship. And it's also hard to think of a time in her career when Wie seemed more capable of doing just that.

"The way Michelle has played the last six months, you look at her differently," said Stacy Lewis, the first-round leader who dropped back to a tie for third after a 3-over 73 on Friday. "I think she's become one of the best ball-strikers on tour. She hits it really consistent, she knows where the ball is going and she's figuring out how to win.

"It's great for women's golf that she's playing well. That brings a lot of fans in."

Wie has been in the public eye, of course, for more than a decade but is still just 24. One of Wie's mentors, Meg Mallon, didn't win her first major until she was 28. It was a different time, sure -- 1991, when the LPGA wasn't nearly as global, nor its star players as young. Still, Wie is not behind schedule in any kind of normal assessment of golf careers.

In fact, you could say she's pretty much right on time.

"Hopefully, being a little bit older, I'm a little bit wiser," said Wie, who shot 2-under 68 for the second day in a row. "I'm just learning the risk/reward, thinking it through."

Wie has three LPGA victories, but there was a gap between the first two, in 2009 and '10, and the most recent, which was this April in her home state of Hawaii. This year, Wie has seven other top-10s, including a runner-up finish to Thompson at the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Thompson and Wie went into the final round there tied for the lead. Wie didn't play badly, but her closing 71 wasn't enough compared with Thompson's 68.

We'll see Wie and Thompson together again Saturday here at Pinehurst No. 2. Might we get that pairing again Sunday for all the marbles? Could be, and if so, it might be even more compelling than at the Kraft.

Wie has been in contention at the U.S. Women's Open before and at different points in her development. In 2005, when she was just 15, she was tied for the lead going into the final round at Cherry Hills in Colorado. But she blew up with an 82 on Sunday and finished tied for 23rd.

The next year at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, she also entered the final day in the lead. She played better that time, with a 73, finishing tied for third, which remains her best showing at the U.S. Women's Open.

Then, in 2012 at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, Wie was in second after two rounds but had an awful weekend -- 78-80 -- and tied for 35th. Last year at Sebonack in New York, she opened with an 80 but was playing injured and withdrew.

So is it her time now? Can Wie go into the weekend of the U.S. Women's Open in the driver's seat and not spin out?

The way she has played so far here at Pinehurst No. 2 would suggest that, yes, she can give it a good run. Wie hasn't lucked into her lead. She looked even more in control of her game on Friday than Thursday, although she finished with the same score.

Wie had five birdies and three bogeys in the first round, but just one bogey to three birdies in the second round. She took her precious pars with a smile, something the "old" Wie didn't always do, as she at times tried for too much.

And that odd putting stance that Wie committed to more than a year ago and which was of her own invention? That's working well.

"She's really playing to her strengths," said two-time U.S. Women's Open champion Karrie Webb. "And as highly criticized as it's been, her putting has really come along. I think it's something she can actually trust now."

The world No. 1, Lewis, says Wie's ball-striking is terrific. A former No. 1 and Hall of Famer, Webb, is impressed with Wie's putting.

Yes, Wie is ready for a big weekend at the U.S. Women's Open.