SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- Michelle Wie West woke up on Friday morning and decided to solve a puzzle. On the day that would eventually feature her final LPGA round of the year, Wie West grabbed her phone and gave Wordle a shot for the very first time. With her second guess, she nailed the day's word, which felt, improbably, like it was picked specifically for her: phase.
"[Friday] started off on a very high note, with a gradual decline after that," she said with a chuckle after her second-round 74 prevented her from making the cut, effectively ending her 2022 season. "It was an amazing week, definitely a bittersweet week. No matter what, [missing the cut] sucks, but overall, I had a very positive experience."
Last week, Wie West announced that she would be stepping away from the game following this year's U.S. Women's Open and leaving only next year's tournament at Pebble Beach on her schedule. This week, she made sure to say that she had zero regrets about her career and reiterate how excited she was about her future endeavors as a mom, a businesswoman and an ambassador for the women's game.
"I'm excited to step away," she said. "I'm probably going to let the clubs collect some dust on them for a little bit now. There's a lot of projects that I'm working on that I haven't had time to do before, so I'm just going to dive into those."
Walking away seems to almost always be a struggle for top athletes, especially those who have been magnets for attention like Wie West has been since she turned professional at 16. But to watch Wie West during her round on Friday was to witness an athlete who is ready to move on. And while melancholy was definitely part of the cocktail of emotions -- she said she teared up during her walk down the 18th fairway -- it is also clear that Wie West is not just at peace with her decision, but enjoying her ride off into the sunset.
Throughout the round Wie stayed close to fellow competitor Brittany Lang, 36, discussing a number of things, such as how their similar-aged kids are doing and what kind of locks they need to put on their doors so that they don't reach them as they grow. Lang said that she's been paired with Wie West often through the years. She said she notices a clear evolution in Wie West's approach from hole to hole, shot to shot.
She just walked in a birdie putt at the 11 to go to +2. Seven holes left and the projected cut right now is +1 pic.twitter.com/N3D2uU8rh5— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) June 3, 2022
"It's night and day. She plays fast now and free," Lang told ESPN after the round. "You could tell a big difference. I wouldn't say not caring, but just kind of felt more relaxed. ... She's definitely ready to go."
There are still moments when Wie West shows flashes of her earlier self. In a cruel twist, her best moment of the round was also her worst. After her approach shot into the par-5 15th landed in the greenside bunker below the hole, Wie West failed to get the ball out of the sand not once, but twice. She shook her head and laughed at herself, stepped out of the bunker and proceeded to chip in for a bogey. Whatever frustration had surfaced quickly gave way to elation.
"Third time's the charm!" she told her caddie.
The moment embodied the round. Wie West struggled, but she never got mad at herself. She missed shots, but any disappointment only resulted in a slight head shake, a light slap at her putter, a smack of her lips. The happy-go-lucky approach always returned, the conversation with Lang in the fairways always picked back up. The next hole always became a blank page.
"I definitely think that there were times where I was very intense in my career on the golf course, but I soon learned that it's still a game," Wie West said. "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, and I definitely had fun [on Friday]."
And it's over. Wie West finished at +5 and will miss the cut. All smiles, though pic.twitter.com/P7lERJzaow— Paolo Uggetti (@PaoloUggetti) June 3, 2022
Beyond her evolving approach to the game, Wie West was quick to be self-deprecating about her current physical and emotional state. She said she was severely out of shape, added that her calves were hurting and that she didn't trust her eyes on the greens Friday. Even as she rattled off what didn't work for her throughout the round, she chased it all with a dose of perspective.
"I played pretty well considering," she said. "Just unfortunate, stupid bogeys here and there, but that just comes with not playing a lot. I just felt a little more rusty [Friday] than I did [Thursday]. But overall, I'm pretty proud of how I'm playing."
If this was the end for Wie West, at times, it felt like a quiet one. During the early part of her round, no cameras were following her. The featured group for the morning wave focused instead on 23-year-old phenom Nelly Korda. Fans cheered Wie West on, but the crowds were scattered. Yet Wie West seemed to relish the pace of it all. On the 13th tee box, which was backed up, she sat on the edge of the ridge overlooking the hole, and opened up a pack of pili nuts. Later, she went and sat on a chair near the 15th green and chatted up a volunteer. At one point, she even forgot that it was her turn to tee off.
The competitive fire Wie West showed earlier in her career may be subdued, but it's not quite dormant. She said she's excited about Pebble Beach next year, but added it's still a long way away so she's not thinking about it.
"The U.S. Open was always going to be the last tournament I played," Wie West said. "The Public Links was the first tournament I played on the mainland, and the U.S. Open was definitely going to be last."
When asked earlier this week where she feels like she'll be able to channel her competitive spirit going forward, Wie West said doing live broadcasts is the closest she feels to playing golf. Still, though, that falls short.
"It's something that you'll never be able to recreate, and that's the hardest part about moving away," she said. "There's nothing else that will recreate that feeling."
"But also I've done it for a very long time," she said.
Even if there's one more tournament on the docket, one more final round, one more final interview, on Friday, there was no doubt about it: Wie West is entering a new phase.