Golf

Michelle Wie West never won this major, but she came oh-so-close on numerous occasions


If Michelle Wie West’s golf career consisted of nothing more than her first four appearances in the Kraft Nabisco Championship — now the major known as the Chevron Championship — it would still be one of the most fascinating stories in golf this century.

Wie West told Golfweek that after this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, she will be “stepping away” from professional golf. That might not be an official retirement announcement, but it’s as close as you can get without using the word retire. If this is the end of Wie West’s playing career at a major championship, it is easy for golf fans in the California desert to think back on the beginning of her major career at the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club.

Already a sensation in her native Hawaii for having qualified for the LPGA’s Takefuji Classic in 2002 when she was just 12, Wie West received an invitation to the 2003 Kraft Nabisco. At first perhaps seen as a novelty in the field, talking about dangling earrings and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Wie West justified tournament director Terry Wilcox’s faith. She made the cut, impressing with her booming drives and a swing so long and loose it could have made John Daly jealous.

But in the third round, she turned the event and the LPGA upside down with a 6-under 66 to work her way into the final threesome of the final day with Annika Sorenstam and eventual champion Patricia Meunier-LeBouc. Wie would struggle to a 76 on the final day, but still finished ninth in her first LPGA major appearance at just 13 years old.

“The most memorable part of today was playing in the last group on the last day,” Wie West said. “It was pretty exciting. I couldn’t imagine myself being there this year, but it was pretty cool.”

More on Wie West: Here are 10 unforgettable moments from her historic career as she prepares to step away from tour golf

“She’s very impressive,” said Sorenstam, in the middle of her Hall of Fame career. “I want to say it’s the next generation and if that’s a sign of what is to come, it’s a great future.”

Somehow it got better for Wie West at Mission Hills. In 2004, she had every chance to win the event at 14 years old, but her putting woes, something that would plague her throughout her career, pushed her down to a still-remarkable fourth-place finish.

In 2005, she was “only” 14th in the major, but she was low amateur again for the third consecutive year. Then came 2006 and Wie West’s first start in the Kraft Nabisco as a pro.

So close to the title

Wie West found herself in a four-way battle down the stretch with Karrie Webb, Lorena Ochoa and Natalie Gulbis. Webb holed a remarkable third shot from the fairway on the par-5 18th hole for an eagle to take the lead. Wie West reached the island green on the par-5 final hole in two shots, but was off the putting surface itself. An average chip left her with about 12 feet to tie for the lead, but the putt clipped the edge of the cup and stayed out. Wie West would finish tied for third behind Webb, who won a playoff, and Ochoa.

Four years at Mission Hills, two very strong chances to win the major title, and Wie West was just 16 years old. The expectations for Wie West at Mission Hills and the rest of her LPGA career were skyrocketing.

And perhaps that was part of the problem. She was so good so early that people expected Wie West to surpass everything that had come before her, reshape the LPGA and perhaps golf itself. That never happened, of course. Injuries were a problem, then she wanted to go to college – a normal and sensible decision – and when she was playing on the tour, she wasn’t as good as the early performances.

Wie West produced three more top-10 finishes at Mission Hills, including a final-round duel with Lexi Thompson in 2014 that saw Thompson win the title and Wie West finish a strong second. She would go on to win five times on the LPGA, a more than respectable career, and take the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open just two months after her second-place finish to Thompson in the desert.

There will always be those who express disappointment that Wie West didn’t meet those high expectations of her early years on the tour. There will be those who will forever question the decision of her early years to play in men’s events or to focus on LPGA events and sponsor’s exemptions rather than playing in more junior and amateur events.

But no one can argue that Wie West didn’t have a big presence in golf in the 2000s and into the 2010s. And she seems to be walking away from playing the game happy and smiling and enjoying being a wife and mother. That reality is better than anyone else’s expectations.

Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at larry.bohannan@desertsun.com or (760) 778-4633. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @larry_bohannan. Support Local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.



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