Wie West’s Remarkable Journey Wound Its Way Through the USGA

By Ron Sirak

| May 31, 2022 | SOUTHERN PINES, N.C.

Wie West’s Remarkable Journey Wound Its Way Through the USGA

77th U.S. Women's Open Home

In many ways, it is exceedingly appropriate that Michelle Wie West has decided to step away from competitive golf at the relatively tender age of 32. Everything in her life has happened on a quickened timeline. When scanning the history of women’s golf, the word “youngest” is often followed by the name Michelle Wie.

She has been in the public eye for more than two decades, growing up in the glare of the spotlight, from pre-teen sensation to working mom on the LPGA Tour.

And the USGA has played a crucial role in this remarkable journey. Her biggest amateur win was the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and her most significant win as a professional was the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica.

And it is also exceedingly appropriate that her last competitive event until next year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links is in Southern Pines, N.C., about 5 miles away from where she won at Pinehurst No. 2.

“It was kind of bittersweet to announce that,” she said Tuesday at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club about stepping away from competition, “but it's something that I've been thinking about for a while. Just to be back here where I won the U.S. Women's Open. It's been an amazing journey, and I'm very excited for what happens next.”

Along the way, there was a berth on the victorious USA Team in the 2004 Curtis Cup Match, a trip to the quarterfinals of the 2005 U.S. Amateur Public Links against the men, losing to eventual champion Clay Ogden, and a determined near-miss run at qualifying for the U.S. Open in 2006. Beginning at age 13 in 2003, Wie West made the cut in the U.S. Women’s Open four consecutive times, culminating with a T-3 finish in 2006.

Those achievements, along with missing the cut by a single stroke in a PGA Tour event in her native Hawaii at the age of 14, helped create a name recognition factor for Wie West not seen in women’s golf since Nancy Lopez a quarter of a century earlier. Not even Tiger Woods achieved the same notoriety at the same age as Wie West.

Woods won the first of his three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur Championships at the age of 15. At 10, Wie West was the youngest to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. She played her way into an LPGA Tour event at 12 and at 13 finished T-9 in the 2003 Chevron Championship, an LPGA major.

Later that year, she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, becoming the youngest champion, male or female, in a USGA open amateur event, then a couple of weeks later became the youngest to ever make the cut in the U.S. Women’s Open.

Michelle Wie

In 2003, a 13-year-old Michelle Wie became the youngest champion in U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links history. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

“You know, first off, I want to say I have zero regrets in my career,” said Wie West, whose USGA debut came 22 years ago in the WAPL just down the road from Pine Needles at Legacy Golf Links in Aberdeen. “There's always that inkling of wishing I had done more. But I feel like no matter what, no one is ever going to be 100 percent satisfied. I have definitely had an up-and-down career, but I'm extremely proud for the resiliency that I've shown over my career. I'm extremely proud to have achieved the two biggest dreams that I've had, one being graduating from Stanford, and the other winning the U.S. Open. To check both those off the list means everything to me.”

The journey for Wie West, while glamorous, was also littered with obstacles related to her age, gender and later, her health. Through it all she forged ahead with steadfast determination. She endured criticism from those who felt she’d be better served competing against female amateurs her own age rather than against adult men and she persevered through a demoralizing array of injuries and illnesses.

Between that U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title in 2003 and her triumph in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, Wie West played through discomfort, at one time or another, in her neck, back, hip, wrists and ankles as well as strep throat, a variety of food allergies and digestive issues. In 2017, there was an emergency appendectomy. Still, she persevered to win five times on the LPGA Tour.

This determination is reflected in her on-course achievements, but perhaps even more impressive is the way in which Wie West carved out a personal life while living under the scrutiny brought on by her professional career. From 2007 to 2012, she was a student at Stanford University, earning a BA in communications. 

In 2019, she became Michelle Wie West when she married Jonnie West, an executive for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA and the son of NBA legend Jerry West. On June 19, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swirled around her, Michelle gave birth to her daughter, Makenna Kamalei Yoona West.

The fact that Wie West chose the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, just a short drive from Pinehurst No. 2 where she won the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, as the forum at which to announce the shift in her career direction is indicative of how much her success in USGA events has meant to her.

“Oh, it means everything to me,” she said about winning the U.S. Women’s Open. “It was the one tournament I wanted to win ever since I started playing golf. If I hadn't won the 2014 U.S. Open I would still – I definitely wouldn't retire, and I would still be out here playing and chasing that win.”

On the Tuesday before the 2014 AIG Women’s Open, when Wie West was introduced at Royal Birkdale as “the reigning U.S. Women's Open champion,” her broad smile could have melted away the dull clouds that shrouded Southport, England, that day.

“It feels amazing,” she said when asked about that intro. “I'm really proud of it. It doesn't mean I am going to win another; but I have one and they can never take my name off that trophy.”

A couple of years later, prior to the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle, Wie West was reflective of her journey.

“When you are a kid, everything seems easy,” she said. “That’s just the nature of life. I’ve had a lot of highs and lows, but I’ve gotten through it. You definitely forget how good you are when you have a tough year. Just driving in here and seeing the USGA signs and remembering I won an Open was good for my confidence.”

While Wie West is not using the word “retired,” she is saying the only competitive event on her dance card after this year’s U.S. Women’s Open is the 2023 championship at Pebble Beach. As a veteran of more than 20 years in USGA events, Wie West is able to look back at how things have changed.

“Huge kudos to the USGA for really buying into women's sport and the LPGA for just growing and keep pushing the boundaries,” she said about the $10 million purse for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, as well as the $90 million in prize money available on the 2022 LPGA Tour. “When doors get closed on us, we just keep pushing, and I'm just so proud of everyone on Tour and the USGA for really buying in and setting the level right.”

The golf journey of Michelle Wie West can probably best be summed up by the Grateful Dead, the legendary rock band from the Bay Area just up the road from Pebble Beach, who sang: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Through it all, Michelle kept on trucking.

Someday soon, Makenna will be old enough to understand, when she gazes into the trophy case at home, that Mom is a two-time USGA champion. And, like her Mom, she will appreciate that is an accomplishment that is forever and always. The name Michelle Wie West is part of golf history.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.