Michelle Wie brings hope to tour

PINEHURST, N.C. -- For more than a decade, Michelle Wie was golf's version of Icarus. She would soar high, but then the "wax" would melt on her "wings" and she'd crash. Other times, it seemed as if she was flying too low and not able to maximize her potential.

It has been a process for Wie to find the balance in between and to never lose belief that the happy medium was not only attainable, but could be the place where she'd have her smoothest ride.

With the biggest prize in women's golf on the line Sunday, Wie dialed in her final-day flight path and it gave her a perfect landing. Her even-par 70 at Pinehurst No. 2 gave her the U.S. Women's Open title for her first major championship.

"Without your downs, without your hardships, I don't think you appreciate the ups as much," Wie said Sunday night at Pinehurst No. 2, the shiny trophy sitting next to her.

It has been a bumpy trip at times, for sure. The thing is, the LPGA has been taking this journey with Wie, even when she was a pre-adolescent prodigy not yet on the tour.

Not just her fans but also her competitors would openly acknowledge it over the years: Women's golf needed Michelle Wie to win. Whatever the "it" factor is, Wie has it.

Golf is about individual star power, and the LPGA has had only a few over the years who have had especially high wattage combined with consistent results on the course. Nancy Lopez, catapulted by her incredible rookie year of 1978 into a Hall of Fame career, was one. Annika Sorenstam, boosted both by stockpiling victories and her appearance in a PGA Tour event in 2003, was another.

But since Sorenstam retired in 2008, no one has "moved the needle" consistently when it comes to women's golf. South Korea's Inbee Park chased the Grand Slam last year, and it was an amazing run as she won three majors in a row. But it still didn't create quite the buzz that the LPGA hoped for.

Wie, though, is one of those athletes who has the potential to transcend her sport -- or at least bring it publicity that not too many others can.

"I think it will grow women's golf a lot," said Lexi Thompson, the American teen who won the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and is another potential superstar. "Michelle is playing so great right now. It was a matter of time before she got her first major."

Wie's signature victory could not have come at a better time. In the year of the American resurgence on the LPGA Tour, she faced a tough course and some very worthy challengers and won by flat-out being the best this week.

She used her driver when it was smart but kept it in the bag when it wasn't. She studied the course and picked the brains of her friends on the men's tour who had played Pinehurst No. 2 the week before in the U.S. Open. She was aggressive without taking silly chances. She was the best version of herself that we've seen at a major championship.

Especially on Sunday, when the pressure was on and every shot mattered.

World No. 1 Stacy Lewis put a 66 on the board to give Wie something to think about. And after Wie double-bogeyed No. 16, Lewis was officially breathing down her neck, just one stroke back.

Wie, who had played so well and so intelligently after an opening bogey, had hit turbulence.

"I think I felt a tinge of panic," Wie admitted of her mindset at No. 16. "I would be lying if I would say I was calm and collected. A lot of different words were going through my mind at that point. I think the thing I was most proud of is I just didn't let it get away from me."

On No. 17, she composed herself. She is no longer the Michelle Wie of years past who might have gone totally off the rails. She's the Michelle Wie of 2014, who answers a stomach-dropping bad hole with a spirit-lifting great hole. She called her birdie on No. 17, estimated at about 20 feet, "One of the best putts I've ever hit in my life."

That life, by the way, is not yet 25 years old. Wie won't hit the quarter-century mark until October. It just seems as if she's much older.

Wie has been on the national golf scene since the age of 10, when she qualified for her first United States Golf Association event. But, to say the least, she didn't take the conventional path as she grew up in the sport and in life.

On sponsors' exemptions, she played in three PGA Tour events while still an amateur. Some called her a show-off; others called her a sideshow. The women on the LPGA Tour didn't always know what to make of her. Was she a potential savior, or a flashy prodigy who would never pan out?

Some gave her the cold shoulder. Remember Danielle Ammaccapane griping about the then-13-year-old Wie accidentally walking in her putting line at the 2003 U.S. Women's Open?

But others gave her a shoulder to lean on. Two-time U.S. Women's Open champion Meg Mallon reached out not just as a mentor but, as Wie said, a second mom. Mallon knew how much it meant to the LPGA Tour to have magnetic players such as Wie.

It wasn't all that long ago, though, that it seemed far from a sure thing that Wie would get this done. In 2012, she had only one top-10 finish and made just 13 cuts out of 23 events. She earned just over $150,000 and seemed to be spinning her wheels.

But at the end of 2012, she decided to go to a new putting stance. People saw it and did a double-take. And then they chuckled and thought, "Good grief, what in the world is she doing?"

Well, she was taking control of her putting. It felt right, and it didn't matter to Wie what anybody else thought about it. Now, not quite two years later, she has a major title and the $720,000 first-place check that went with it. And the rest of this season to accomplish even more.

"It's Michelle Wie's game; she takes ownership of it," said Lewis, who graciously applauded Wie as she came up to the 18th green and hugged her after Wie finished with a par. "She knows how to fix her golf swing. It's her game. I think people need to know that."

Lewis was referring to more than just what Wie does on the golf course. She was defending Wie from the charges over the years -- from media, fans and even fellow players -- that Wie's parents were too involved in her career.

The Wies have long faced criticism because of the unconventional things Michelle did, like her appearances on the men's tour. But think about it. Wie has her degree from Stanford, she has played in the Solheim Cup three times, and she now has a major championship. Seems like everything has worked out after all -- maybe even better than expected.

Wie also has become a stronger spokeswoman for the LPGA Tour, something she wasn't ready for when she was first in the spotlight as a kid.

"I want the tour to flourish," Wie said. "I'm so proud of every single player on this tour. I think this week, playing on the same stage as the men [the week before], it opens the door for us to get better, get bigger. I'm just really grateful and honored to be part of the crew, part of the tour."

Yes, Wie has become well-liked on the circuit as "one of the gang." But she is also well-suited for the spotlight. The LPGA is no doubt thrilled that she is both.