News & Opinion

Wie’s career revival boosts LPGA

On the same weekend this month when Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker won on major professional tours, the most significant victory in golf occurred on the other side of the planet, in Singapore. Michelle Wie also won again, finally, and suddenly the women’s game bubbled with intrigue and possibility.

Now, on the brink of the LPGA’s first major championship of the year – the ANA Inspiration begins Thursday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. – it’s worth saying: Women’s golf needs Wie to extend her revival. Nothing would invigorate the LPGA more than Wie in the winner’s circle, repeatedly, and the early returns in 2018 are encouraging.

She always has been a sympathetic figure in my book, given her overbearing parents and the suffocating expectations since she burst onto the LPGA scene as a 12-year-old prodigy. The pressure and scrutiny shadowed her as a teenager, growing exponentially when she posted six top-five finishes in majors before her 17th birthday.

Michelle Wie flashes a winning smile earlier this month in Singapore, providing a spark for women’s golf. The LPGA plays its first major championship of 2018 this week.

Michelle Wie flashes a winning smile earlier this month in Singapore, providing a spark for women’s golf. The LPGA plays its first major championship of 2018 this week.

That’s a preposterously high bar.

Now she’s 28, with an up-and-down career well short of those sky-high expectations. Wie owns five LPGA victories, including the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. She then went nearly four years without another triumph, ending the drought March 4 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship.

Wie arrives in the Southern California desert this week at No. 3 on this year’s money list and No. 13 in the world ranking. She has shown signs of rejuvenation, with two other top-15 finishes this season and, most notably, that scintillating 66-65 weekend in Singapore to hoist the trophy. (She also tied for 22ndon Sunday at the Kia Classic in Carlsbad after shooting 68-69 on the weekend.)

Nothing against Shanshan Feng, Lexi Thompson and other top LPGA pros, but Wie brings unparalleled star power and name recognition. She resonates with mainstream fans. They know her back story: those long-ago, much-debated appearances in PGA Tour events, her commendable diligence in earning a Stanford degree, her struggles with injuries in recent years.

(Quick side story: Out with friends recently, one marveled upon learning that Wie was 28, thinking she must be older, given her many years in the spotlight. Another friend also was surprised, recalling her phenom days and thinking she was younger. Both genuinely were interested in hearing about Wie’s career.)

This connection becomes stronger when Wie reveals the thoughtful, introspective side of her personality, as she did during a pre-tournament news conference March 13 in Phoenix.

“I think when I was younger, and playing really well at a really young age, I just saw my life at this trajectory,” Wie said. “I think the first down [period] really shocked me. I took it really hard, and it wasn’t easy.

“Then you start to realize life doesn’t really happen that way. You hear about other people going through injuries and stuff like that. Everyone has their own struggles. I think my struggles have just been very publicized and very public. …

“I just draw strength from knowing I’ve done it before. I have reached lows and pulled myself out of it.”

Now, maybe, Wie is putting herself on a path to long-awaited greatness on the course. I keep flashing back to her words in February 2012 during an interview at the Coho Coffee House, one of her favorite Stanford hangouts during her time in school. She didn’t play golf in college because she already had turned pro, and she typically skipped the spring quarter to compete on the LPGA tour.

Wie, only a few months from graduating, was talking about her post-college golf ambitions. “I want people to keep noticing me for what I am doing, not what I have done,” she said then.

Six years later, that remains a noble quest.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine.; Twitter: @ronkroichick