Wie 'more appreciative' after 67 to open Kraft

Michelle Wie during Thursday's first round of the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship at Rancho Mirage, Calif.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – The LPGA no longer revolves around the comings and goings of Michelle Wie. She has probably answered as many questions about Lydia Ko in the last two years as she has about herself.

But when the name Wie starts moving up toward the top of a leaderboard, as it did Thursday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship with a 5-under 67, there’s frankly nothing better for the LPGA.

Wie, 24, still moves the needle like no other.

“This wasn't a flukey round today,” said longtime swing instructor David Leadbetter. “You could see it coming."

Wie said earlier in the week that her most memorable moment on this course came in 2006, when, at 16, she held the lead late Sunday only to hear that unmistakeable roar come from the 18th. Webb holed out for eagle to force a playoff with Lorena Ochoa and ultimately win the tournament. Wie closed with a 70 that year and tied for third.

At age 13, Wie shot 66 on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in the third round and ultimately finished tied for ninth. She played the Kraft four times as an amateur, finishing T-9, 4th, T-14, T-3. Her best finish as a pro came in 2011 when she came in sixth.

“I think when you’re younger, I think I was like ‘Oh, wow, yeah, that’s cool,’ ” Wie said. “Then being in contention now I think I’m a lot more appreciative of the fact that I have the chance.”

Wie’s round today was highlighted by a birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie stretch on Nos. 9-12. She hit 11 fairways and 15 greens.

For the season, Wie ranks second on the tour in greens in regulation at 80 percent and fifth in scoring at 69.85. Perhaps the most significant stat is off the tee: She’s hitting 70 percent of fairways, a marked improvement.

“I definitely think when my driver works well it goes down to all my game,” Wie said.

The only hiccup in Wie’s round came on the 17th, a three-putt bogey.

Leadbetter points to last year’s Solheim Cup as the catalyst for Wie’s improved, and mostly inspired, play.

Wie said the Solheim Cup brings out something different in her than other tournaments. She plays harder and wants it more despite incredible nerves.

“When you hit that good shot and you face your fear, I think it really brings confidence to myself that I can really do it,” said Wie.

Leadbetter is here all week in the desert but it’s their first face-to-face session since before the season started in January.

“We don’t overcoach her now,” he said.

It’s obvious to those who follow the game closely that Wie is finding more joy in the game. She has settled into life in Jupiter, Fla. She’s keeping her interests wide and varied.

Later this month she’ll host a charity event at the LPGA Lotte Championship and it won’t have the slightest thing to do with golf.

The “Wie Love Ping Pong” event will feature LPGA contestants battling it out Saturday night to raise money for college scholarships through the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association. Ping pong participants at a Honolulu nightclub will include Lydia Ko, Yani Tseng, Christina Kim, Cristie Kerr and Jaye Marie Green. Wie will be the event’s No. 1 seed.

That’s Wie: fun, whimsical, creative and, to her credit, a little bit different.

Every year she lets us in a little bit more.

Wednesday, Wie marveled at the number of fans who asked to take a selfie with her. Not a picture, Wie noted, a selfie.

There’s still a tremendous amount of interest in the girl who came out hitting towering 3-irons as a teenager against the men.

Except now she’s just one of the girls, looking to win her first major at the place she grew up.

“She’s got the passion back for the game,” Leadbetter said. “For a period of time she lost her love of the game.”

Now she’s all grown up, and playing like a kid again.

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