PINEHURST, N.C. – Michelle Wie’s putter is hotter than the temperature in the Sand Hills of North Carolina. And in case you were wondering, it is pizza-oven hot here.
Wie rolled in birdie putts at her final two holes at Pinehurst No. 2 en route to a second straight 68 and a 36-hole total of 4-under 136 at the U.S. Women’s Open.
More than any club in the bag, Wie’s putter has held her back from achieving the greatness predicted for her. She ranked 119th out of 133 players in putting average (31.16) in 2012. But she stopped wondering about her stroke and committed last season to her table-top method of bending nearly horizontally at the waist.
She’s improved to 39th this season and if she keeps holing big putts as she has through two rounds at Pinehurst, we’ll all be testing out the method next week.
After a discussion with Nike equipment reps last week and her coach, David Leadbetter, Wie said she flattened her putter by four and a half degrees. She’s wielded it with deadly efficiency, pouring in putts as if the hole had expanded to the size of a bathtub.
“Same size,” she said.
Wie relied on what she called great course management, maintaining a judicious balance between boldness and good sense. Starting on the back nine, Wie strung together eight straight pars to start her round.
“In some other golf courses I would be mad at that point,” Wie said. “I was very happy that I had eight pars. Pars are great on this golf course. I’ll take a par any day on this golf course.”
She broke the streak with a birdie at 18. Wie crushed a drive 30 yards past Catriona Matthew and Amy Yang, but landed in a divot. So Wie punched a quail-high gap wedge that scooted on to the green and stopped 14 feet from the hole. The birdie putt slid to the right as it neared the hole and disappeared to tie her with Stacy Lewis at 3 under.
But she gave the stroke right back at the first, making her only bogey of the day. Wie caught a bad break when her hybrid off the tee stopped footsteps off the fairway and rested against a weedy-looking scrub brush. Wie bent over to inspect her lie. It wasn’t good. Trying to cut an iron, Wie’s club got stuck in the bush, steering the ball right of the green and she failed to recover.
But she didn’t let it faze her. One hole later, she chipped 8 feet past the hole and drained the par putt for a big save. Wie played smart aiming for the fat of the green when pins were tucked.
She skated along until running into trouble at the sixth, where she pushed her tee shot to the right fringe more than 50 feet from the hole. She powered her first putt 15 feet past the hole and was fortunate it stayed on the green. She was in danger of her first three-putt of the tournament. But no matter: Wie stepped up and coolly canned the comebacker. Her right fist punched the air.
Seeking the answer for her putting woes, Wie said she had asked Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon to describe the difference between a good putter and a great one. “They make it,” Wie said, “and if not, then not. Sometimes I worry about it too much. And I want to make it too much.”
She almost wanted her approach shot at No. 8 to find the green too much – “I actually thought I was going to have a panic attack on that hole,” Wie said.
She knocked a 6-iron 12 feet behind the hole and rolled in the putt to regain a share of the lead with Lewis. Then she capped off twin 68s by cutting a pitching wedge 15 feet below the hole at the par-3 ninth hole and finished with a birdie for the second straight day.
Much like U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, Wie went through a prolonged slump the last few years and many observers had written her off. But she won in her native state of Hawaii in April and has been a top-10 machine all year, serving notice that she’s back.
“It’s like a different person,” Rolex No. 1 Stacy Lewis said. “She’s grown up and she’s taken ownership of her game. Her relationship with her parents and her family is so much better. She’s out there calling the shots instead of the other way around. And it’s great to see, because she’s playing golf and she’s having fun with it. She’s one of the biggest nerds you’ll ever meet. She’s goofy, she’s funny. So you may see her super serious, but she’s quite the opposite.”
Now she’s halfway – with a long way to go – to achieving her dream of winning a major.
“I definitely always thought about it, always dreamt of it,” Wie said. “Every time I hold something people make fun of me because I hold it like a trophy.”