Words by Alex Podlogar
Photos by Matt Gibson
As the sun appeared and methodically moved east of the pines that cloak the 18th tee of Pinehurst No. 2, Michelle Wie West stood behind the green to take in the natural North Carolina spectacle that happens daily in this spot.
One could only wonder what was going through her mind. She took out her phone to snap a photo of the scene.
Monday was the first time she has stood in this spot’s warming glaze since that June evening nearly 10 years before. This time, though, the star was shining from the opposite direction of her last experience here, when she had clutched the U.S. Women’s Open trophy as dusk approached from the other side of the clubhouse following her greatest triumph in golf. There is no grandstand in this moment – not yet, anyway – no adoring fans, and only the modified serenity of the early morning as a golf course wakes up. The ping of drivers at Maniac Hill in the distance, the muffled whirl of maintenance vehicles, the scruff of caddies’ sneakers as they trudge up the stairs and past her on the brick path, few noticing and none bothering the slender, 6-foot champion clothed in a black hoodie and a long fleece overcoat, her cropped, not-quite-shoulder-length hair breezily swaying under a teal Nike cap.
Michelle Wie West walks through the area where she nearly lost a ball on the 16th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 during the final round of the U.S. Women's Open in 2014.
Wie West’s first stop is the 16th tee. She wants to revisit the last three holes of No. 2, ahead of play that morning and with a documentarian. At the tee they consider where to begin. For Wie West, there is only one answer. She breaks into a genial smile. “Let’s go to my bunker!”
Roughly 400 yards later, and mere steps from the sandy cart path, Wie West gently saunters onto the ridge behind the bunkers and waste area nearing the 16th green. She laughs under her breath, to herself, and softly says, “The native,” and lets out a tender sigh. In 2014, holding a three-shot lead in Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Women’s Open, Wie West had burrowed an ill-advised hybrid from a fairway bunker on the par-4 16th into the scruff and wire grass here, the ball lost for several minutes.
“We found it with what had to be just seconds to spare,” Wie West recalls, standing on the ridge and sweeping pine straw with her right foot. “If I remember right, the owner of Pinehurst (Resort), Mr. Dedman, was the one who found it.”
Tamed by early autumn, the area isn’t nearly as dense as it was almost a decade ago. “We’d find it a lot easier now,” Wie West quips.
She eventually made a double bogey at the hole, her lead suddenly clipped by two-thirds in an instant. But it could’ve been worse.
“The putt I made for double bogey was probably the best putt I hit the entire week,” she says. “But if we don’t find the ball, I make triple for sure.”
No. 2’s maintenance crew is on the green, oblivious to who or why the couple of people are standing around the bunker they had raked and prepared for play only a few minutes before. Wie West looks across the 16th to the 17th green, the sun illuminating her face. She is asked how much she remembers that final round.
“Not all that much, really,” she says. “I kind of blacked out for most of it. I remember 10, the eagle I made there. But really, up until we got to this point, I don’t remember much of it.”
She looks back to the 16th green and speaks into the cool, gentle breeze.
“But I could feel Stacy on the range.”
Stacy is Stacy Lewis, also one of golf’s greats who had blistered No. 2 with a 4-under 66 in the final round. Her charge appeared it would be for naught until Wie West finished 16. Now the game was on, and Lewis was warming up in anticipation of a playoff.
Wie West bypasses the 17th tee and heads straight for the green. The pin on Monday is back-right. On her day it was front-left. Wie West leaves the others behind and walks alone onto the green, the dew marking her footsteps, her hands buried in her overcoat’s pockets against the early morning October chill. She stands where her tee shot stopped on Sunday, looks forward to the front of the green where the cup had been, and motions with her right hand. She speaks without a question posed.
“It was a double-breaker down the hill, about 20-25 feet,” she says. “I knew it was a good putt off the face. My only concern was if it would make it to the hole.”
She stops, turns and lifts her head, and smiles. “It did.”
The 18th tee is still in some shadow when Wie West gets there. She gazes into the distance at the large bunkers protecting the right side. “What is it to clear those, 220, 230?” she asks. “I couldn’t clear those with a driver today. But on Sunday, I hit 3 wood, and I hit it 15 yards farther than I had hit driver the other days. That’s adrenaline. I was so pumped up.”
Safely in the fairway, it was over.
“I knew I had won then. The walk from my second shot to the green, I wish it could’ve lasted for hours, for days. It was the best walk I’ve ever had – well, outside of the walk to the altar and stuff like that…”
Wie West’s voice trails. She begins walking up the hill from the tee to reveal the clubhouse. Her strides are long, but slow. She stops well short of where her drive had released, lifts her head and looks around. She is silent. A gentleman in a rocking chair with his coffee on the veranda wonders who the figure is. The fairway around her and the green in the distance are awash in daylight. She begins walking back to the tee, back into the shadow, her head down. She takes her time.
Wie West meets No. 2’s Superintendent John Jeffreys back at the tee. She marvels at No. 2’s conditioning, then asks about the plants in the sandscape. “What is this one?” she asks, stabbing a browning pine bloom with her white Nike. “This wasn’t here before.”
She and Jeffreys chat for 10 minutes. Wie West compliments his crew’s work. She tells the story of her 3 wood again. Asks about the crew’s schedule when it comes to a U.S. Open, when they sleep. She talks about following Rickie Fowler and Martin Kaymer the previous Sunday in the final round of the U.S. Open. “I was with Korda,” Wie West says. “We really learned so much about the golf course that day. We walked all 18.”
Eventually she makes it back to the 18th green. She sees friends there who greet her. She shows them video on her phone of the puppy her family will pick up in the coming days. “Ours is the brown one,” she says. She’ll play The Cradle that afternoon.
There isn’t much reflection on the 18th green. She remembers her mom cheering off to the side. She remembers raising her arms in satisfaction, then demonstrates for her friends.
After visiting the pro shop – “I need a No. 2 headcover,” she says – Wie West finds her way back to where her morning began. She takes out her phone and Facetimes her husband Jonnie. She reverses the camera.
“Look, hon. It’s 18.”