NAPLES, Fla. -- Michelle Wie, who has been loitering on golf leaderboards since she was barely a teenager, teed off in the third-to-last grouping Friday at the CME Group Tour Championship, but that didn't mean what you might think.
The players in the LPGA's season-ending event were sent off both the first and 10th tees according to their first-round scores, with the higher ones starting on the back nine. Wie's opening 75, which included a triple-bogey on a par 5, was better than only six of the 70 other golfers in the field.
It was that kind of day. It has been that kind of year.
Wie arrived at Tiburon Golf Club looking for the kind of performance that has eluded her throughout 2015. If she hasn't been sick, she has been hurt most of the season. Following 2014, when her first major victory, the U.S. Women's Open, highlighted a two-win, breakout season that appeared to be a harbinger of even better things, 2015 has been, to put it gently, a dud for Wie.
A pair of 11th-place finishes -- one in a hobbled defense of her Open title because of left hip and ankle problems -- are her best tournament results, but her finest performance was arguably a 6-and-4 singles triumph at the Solheim Cup that helped the United States come back from a historic deficit to win. Wie seemed a different player that day, a freewheeling birdie machine in sharp contrast to most of the year.
Wie is 51st on the LPGA money list after being fourth in 2014. Her 3-under 69 in the second round at Tiburon -- which left Wie at even-par 144, 10 strokes behind leader Ha Na Jang -- was only her 13th score below 70 in 2015, compared to 33 last season. That goes a long way in explaining her stroke average of 71.90, more than 2 strokes worse than her 69.82 average in 2014.
Although Wie's sometimes problematic putting is worse this year than last (28th in putts per green in regulation versus fourth), amid the health distractions her ballstriking has suffered more (51st in greens in regulation, down from a No. 3 ranking in 2014).
"It's been a little frustrating with injuries and whatnot," Wie said in a brief post-round interview Friday. "But hopefully over the weekend I can get something going, get some low scores -- hopefully end on a good note and get a fresh start for 2016."
David Leadbetter, who has coached Wie for more than a decade, said he had a lengthy and frank conversation with her Thursday night after her 75.
"We had a long heart-to-heart last night. She's been very frustrated," Leadbetter said. "This game is all about momentum, and she started the year with high hopes.
"Then she goes to the tournament in the Bahamas and she got ill and had a virus that lingered for six weeks. It was almost as if that was a prelude to almost nothing happening. She hasn't played badly, top-20s here and there. But there's been nothing to grab onto. She's had hip and other injuries. We talked about how this year's basically a write-off. There is no other way to put it."
Wie is still only 26 years old, but given her early, splashy arrival on the main stages of women's golf -- she has played in the U.S. Women's Open a dozen times, for instance -- it can seem as if she is older.
"You'd think she's 46 as long as she's been around," said Leadbetter, who admits Wie's four career wins are far fewer than many believed she would have by her mid-20s.
"If you look at it in the cold, bright light of day, there's no way she's lived up to her potential at this point in time," Leadbetter said. "I told her she should be winning three or four events a year. I told her last night, 'You've got players with half the ability kicking your butt.' She agreed."
Leadbetter said he can be frustrated by Wie's tendency to wander from place to place with her technique because of a creative mind.
"It's created a problem from a technical standpoint," he said. "I could watch her swing on Friday, and on Monday she could have a totally different backswing. She's the consummate tinkerer."
Wie's swing was sharp Friday during a bogey-free round, and although she is still employing a very restricted hip turn going back, her action is somewhat smoother and fuller than it has been at times in the past couple of years. At the worst of her hip woes this year, Wie adopted a much more narrow stance to take pressure off the bad joint, but her stance is again fairly wide.
"She likes it wider," Leadbetter said. "We're trying to find that intermediate width. We've got the swing a little longer, which I think is better for her. We're trying to get more flow -- the short, aggressive power swing was putting more stress and strain on her body."
Friday on the 492-yard, par-5 sixth hole (her 15th), Wie hit a hybrid from 225 yards that was on-target all the way and set up an easy two-putt birdie from 20 feet. On other holes, Wie effectively teed off with a fairway metal, hitting a low, boring shot for position that was such a big part of her Open triumph at Pinehurst.
"The last two days I left a lot out there," said Wie, who had 32 and 29 putts Thursday and Friday. She had a chance to build some of the elusive mojo Leadbetter talks about on her 11th and 12th holes, missing consecutive birdie putts inside 8 feet. "Definitely left a few putts out there," she said.
At one point in their candid discussion Thursday, Leadbetter said he asked Wie, who has interests away from golf, such as painting, about her desire for the sport.
"I quizzed her on that: 'Do you still want this?'" he said. "She said, 'Definitely.' And I believe her. If people knew how hard she's working behind the scenes, they wouldn't doubt her. Some people say she's overrated. They rake her over the coals for golf. But life is not golf. She's beautiful. She's got a degree from Stanford. She's artistic. She doesn't have to work a day in her life. She loves what she does. There is more to Michelle than golf."
When it comes to golf, though, after this lost season the next one takes on more urgency.
"Hopefully 2016 is a turning point for her," Leadbetter said. "It's an important year. She's not 16 or 19 anymore. In her career, I think she has less years to play than she has played. I don't see her playing past another four or five years -- give it her all, then venture to do something else. Maybe she hasn't lit up the record books yet. There's still time."