Michelle Wie's golf game has always been built on her sublime physical gifts and an obsession with technical precision, but during her roller-coaster career one key ingredient has been mostly missing: passion. She has often seemed to approach tournaments like a joyless middle manager running through a to-do list, her youthful spunk stolen by crushing amounts of hype, money and unfulfilled expectations. But everything changed for Wie at last week's Solheim Cup, played at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.
The U.S. team retained the Cup with a surge in Sunday singles that was entirely predictable given that the Americans had used the same formula to take the previous two Cups. Wie was the real revelation. The 19-year-old rookie, six years removed from her last victory of any kind, made the U.S. team only because of Beth Daniel's leap of faith with a captain's pick, but Wie stole the show as the best player and biggest cheerleader on a young team searching for an identity. Her 3-0-1 record was the sparkliest of this Cup, but more surprising than the points Wie earned was her fist-pumping, foot-stomping, thigh-slapping fervor. A self-described "hermit" who has rarely revealed herself, Wie developed a goofy, giggly chemistry with her teammates and felt so at ease in her new surroundings that her traditionally grim game face was replaced by a radiant smile.
"It's been stunning to see the change in her," said Cristie Kerr, who went 2-1-1 in her fifth Solheim Cup. "It's as if she's grown up right before our eyes."
Wie's blossoming was not accidental, as her teammates went out of their way to bring her out of her shell, sometimes through old-fashioned hazing. "Angela Stanford was on Michelle Wie the first day we practiced," said Daniel. "She's digging at her, and Michelle's going right back, toe-to-toe. And Michelle is like, 'Why are you picking on me?' Angela said, 'Because you have to be tough for this event. I'm going to make you tough.'"
In the Solheim's opening session, the Friday-morning four-ball, Wie made four birdies in the first 16 holes to carry partner Morgan Pressel, but a sloppy finish allowed Catriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth to steal a halve. For a lesson on how to close, Wie needed to look no further than teammates Kerr and Paula Creamer and their match versus the powerhouse team of Suzann Pettersen and Sophie Gustafson. Creamer dropped a 45-foot bomb on the 16th hole to put the U.S. 1 up, and then Kerr slammed the door with birdies on the final two holes. Creamer, 23, also starred in the key match of the afternoon foursomes, making a 20-footer on the 17th hole to close out Matthew and Janice Moodie. The victory made Creamer's partner, 49-year-old Juli Inkster, the alltime U.S. points leader (with 18) and staked the Americans to a 4½--3½ first-day lead.
Creamer, like all the Americans, professed to being inspired by Inkster, who had left most of her teammates in tears with a heartfelt pep talk on the eve of what she said would be her final Cup as a player. Said Stanford, "We want to win this for our country and our captain, but we also want to win for Juli."
Saturday was when Wie took over the Cup. She was sent out in the first morning four-ball match alongside the irrepressible Christina Kim, 25, who spent the match jawing at Wie and shamelessly playing to the crowd while intermittently producing clutch shots. Wie was sensational in making five birdies in the first 11 holes during a commanding 5-and-4 victory over Helen Alfredsson and Tania Elosegui, and she and Kim celebrated on the 14th green with a series of elaborate handshakes and zany dance steps that were punctuated by Wie's giving her partner a light spank on the booty to the cheers of thousands of mildly mystified fans. Afterward Kim's voice was nearly shot, while a giddy Wie said, "This is the most fun I've ever had playing golf. I'm still shaking from the round."
Europe squared the Solheim Cup by taking the final two four-ball matches on the 18th hole, the key blow being Anna Nordqvist's 20-footer for birdie. The momentum carried over to afternoon foursomes as Europe won two of the first three matches to claim its first lead of the week. Wie and Kerr were the last Yanks standing, in a tussle against Hjorth and Nordqvist. Wie seemed to thrive on the pressure, hitting it stiff on 10 and 11 to stake the U.S. to a 2-up lead and then making a key 3½-footer on 12 to preserve the margin.
The inability to consistently hole clutch putts has long been the only bugaboo in Wie's game, and she knows it. The week before the Solheim she rang up Dave Stockton, the Champions tour putting oracle. Across a pair of four-hour lessons, Stockton studied Wie's mechanical action and diagnosed that she was aiming to the right and then pulling her putts with an overactive right hand. Stockton revamped Wie's alignment and ball position and persuaded her to shorten her preputt routine, but mostly they focused on improving her feel by treating putting as more art than science. Says Stockton, "I told her, When putting becomes the strongest part of your game, can you imagine how much fun you're going to have?"
In the crucial Saturday-afternoon foursomes match, a wild sequence at 17 left Wie with a five-footer to halve the hole. She drilled it, letting loose a flurry of fist pumps and sending the drama to the 18th hole.