Maybe it was just a puff of wind stirring the pines at LPGA headquarters, but it sounded like a collective sigh of relief. Whatever it was, it wasn't loud enough to muffle the sound of Michelle Wie's ball rattling in the cup on the 90th hole of last week's LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament in Daytona Beach. Wie's four-footer for par secured her tour card for 2009 and officially launched the Michelle Wie era. � Hold on, you say. Launched the what? Don't you have to win something—usually a whole lot of somethings—to have an era named for you? � Well, yes, normally. But these are not normal times for the LPGA. Annika Sorenstam just retired to have babies, tournament sponsors are drowning in red ink, and the tour's top player, Lorena Ochoa, cooled off after her six-win burst of early 2008. So we're understandably eager to anoint a new superstar—even if our heroine's only victory of note came five years ago at the '03 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship.
"It feels like a clean slate, a new beginning," an upbeat Wie said on Sunday. "But it's weird [because] I've played on the tour for, like, seven years now, and it's, like, Wow!" A few years ago, in fact, the brash teenager thought she'd have two tour cards by the time she turned 19—one from the LPGA and one from the PGA Tour. Instead she labored in 2008 as a part-time Stanford freshman and part-time pro, entering eight tournaments on sponsors' exemptions and failing to win enough money to avoid Q school.
In between, you may remember, she had a great fall. Wie took a tumble while running in February 2007 and messed up her left wrist. That affected her game. Then Wie experienced a sharp drop in the public's estimation due to some bratty behavior that, while it wouldn't have raised an eyebrow on the floor of her Stanford dorm, raised the blood pressure of the Nike and Sony executives who had signed her to more than $10 million in endorsements. As popular as Wie was at 16, when she finished in the top five at three LPGA majors, she was that unpopular at 18.
"I'm a completely different person now," Wie said on Sunday. Different as in two years older and two years wiser. "I was telling myself I wanted to get back to where I was," she said, "but it's impossible. You will never be who you were when you were 14 or 15. I'm no longer trying to be who I was before."
And that's a good thing, because last year's Wie was about as much fun as an unplugged Wii. "She went through the grinder," her coach, David Leadbetter, said while walking with a gallery of several hundred on the Champions course at LPGA International. "She was frustrated because her body was still able to create that magnificent coil"—one of the keys to Wie's power—"but her hands and wrists weren't strong enough to hold onto the club." Leadbetter shook his head. "A year ago she couldn't have cared less if she ever played again." And now? "She's not the long, skinny, teenage phenom anymore," Leadbetter said, "but she's stronger, smarter and she's grown up."
For the most part, Wie looked like a star in Daytona. The sometimes lurching, arrhythmic swing of '07 was gone—replaced by the long, fluid stroke of her, uh, youth. Playing conservatively because she only had to finish in the top 20 to secure her card, Wie shot 69-65-72-68, sending her into Sunday's final round in second place, a stroke behind former NCAA champ Stacy Lewis, who conceded nothing after playing with Wie last Friday. "She's a good player but not that much better than anybody else," said the pride of The Woodlands, Texas.
Lewis's words might have offended those who wanted Wie to open her era with a victory, but the Texan proved her point by firing a final-round 69 to win the Q school trophy (and a token $5,000) by a three-stroke margin over South Korea's Amy Yang. Wie, on the other hand, missed her first five greens and chunked a pitch on the 9th, so it wasn't until she chipped in for a birdie on the 17th hole that her always-hovering mom, Bo, and dad, B.J., could breathe easily. But there were no leader boards on the course, so Michelle walked up to the 18th green thinking, I need to see three letters on that scoreboard.
They were there—the W, I and E, along with a --12 that confirmed Wie's tie for seventh, a whopping payday of $2,650 and her right to carry an LPGA player's clip for a year. "I kind of see this card as an I-can-play-whenever-I-want card," Wie said. "I can pick and choose, play in three in a row, two in a row and gain some momentum. I'm going to take advantage of my card."
Leadbetter was happy to see her enjoying the game again. "She doesn't have to live up to other people's expectations now," he said. "She simply has to live up to her own."
Complete results from PGA, Champions and LPGA Q schools at GOLF.com.