Michelle Wie, with a fresh look, shares 54-hole lead at Tour Championship

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Michelle Wie, with a fresh look, shares 54-hole lead at Tour Championship

LPGA Tour

Michelle Wie, with a fresh look, shares 54-hole lead at Tour Championship

NAPLES, Fla. – Players on tour sometimes walk by Michelle Wie now without recognizing her. The LPGA’s most recognizable player cut her hair and died it blond out of sheer boredom while recovering from appendix surgery.

Now she’s on top of a crammed leaderboard at the CME Group Tour Championship, looking to win for the first time since the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open. What looked like an inevitable runaway has turned into a free-for-all at the LPGA’s season-ending event, with four players tied for the lead at 10-under 206 and 22 players separated by three shots.

Chief among them is Sung Hyun Park, the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open champ who is looking to become the first player to win both LPGA Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season since Nancy Lopez accomplished the feat in 1978. She’s also in a tight race for the Vare Trophy and CME Race to the Globe $1 million bonus.

Park put herself in a number of precarious positions at Tiburon Golf Club that led to an untimely 75. Stacy Lewis said the pressure at the CME – with so many year-end races on the line – is some of the worst in the game. The former World No. 1 would know.

The rookie Park trails by one shot and can sweep it all on Sunday.

“Keeping my focus will be key,” Park said.

Ariya Jutanugarn, a dominant force in 2016, joins Wie at the top along with Suzann Pettersen and Kim Kaufman, who returned to the tour this week after a bout with mono.

She binged-watched “Friends” and “Fixer Upper” for two weeks in snowy South Dakota before arriving in Naples with few expectations. Kaufman’s 64 was the day’s low round.

Lexi Thompson double-bogeyed the first hole yet sits one stroke back. She can turn an emotionally-trying season into a special one in south Florida. A victory on Sunday would give golf’s top American the POY, Vare Trophy and a $1.5 million payday.

So Yeon Ryu (T-32) currently holds a three-point lead in the POY race over Shanshan Feng (T-23). Park needs to finish in at least sixth place to have a chance. Thompson must win to take the POY title.

Ryu has battled a right shoulder injury since Malaysia and had limited practice.

“It’s still a little tight,” she said, “but compared to like Tuesday, Wednesday, it’s much, much better.”

Wie can relate to Kaufman’s cabin fever. She missed six weeks of action after the emergency appendectomy in late August. To make up for it, Wie committed to a six-week stretch of tournaments that concludes this week.

Last week she found herself laying flat on the golf course in China; this week she’s been sitting down in the middle of the fairway trying to stay off her feet. Wie likened herself to a hermit crab, mostly staying in her hotel room after each round.

“Basically, I mean, I’ll never play six weeks in a row again,” said Wie, “and I told my caddie if I ever want to play six weeks again, just punch me in the face.”

Lewis played alongside Wie and said she’s hitting it straighter than she has seen in a long time, calling it “not as funky.”

Wie said it likely has more to do with a new driver after all of her woods ended up cracked in Asia. She had them all changed in Japan.

Lewis endured a drought every bit as long as Wie’s until she broke through this summer with a meaningful triumph at the Cambia Portland Classic, where she donated her entire winner’s check to hurricane victims in Houston. A now lighter Lewis said her shoulders dropped a few inches as a result and she was able to sleep better at night.

“It was just so much more relaxed going to a tournament, not necessarily dreading it,” she said. “You’re excited to be there, excited to have a chance to win. Just renewed the love for golf a little bit and the enjoyment of competing.”

Wie can’t wait for that same feeling of relief.

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