A Personal 23-Year USGA Perspective of Wie West

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jul 09, 2023 | Pebble Beach, Calif.

A Personal 23-Year USGA Perspective of Wie West

Twenty-three years.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I arrived in the media room at Legacy Golf Links in Aberdeen, N.C., and my late USGA colleague, Rhonda Glenn, mentioned a 10-year-old being in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (WAPL) field. My skepticism immediately kicked in. A 10-year-old in a USGA championship? Really?

That’s when I first caught a glimpse of Michelle Wie. This was several years before she told reporters of her aspirations of playing in the Masters against the men or winning major championships. There was a striking innocence about this precocious kid from Hawaii. I still remember her arguing with her father/caddie, B.J., in the fairway of the par-5 18th hole during stroke play, wanting to go for the green in two. I recall her coming close and eventually making the match-play cut, losing in the Round of 64 to Cindy Lee, 3 and 2.

It began a long and fruitful association with the USGA. In a way, USGA championships defined Michelle Wie, from winning the WAPL in 2003 to contending in U.S. Women’s Opens before she could legally drive, to qualifying for the U.S. Amateur Public Links and coming close to playing in a U.S. Open, and eventually claiming her only major title, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

For most of these occasions, I had a front-row seat to these exploits. There was joy and heartbreak, hyperbole and hubris. While she didn’t win as many events as many believed she would, Wie became a global star, an inspiration for future generations, especially in Hawaii, and a face for women’s golf and sports.

On Friday at Pebble Beach, Wie West (she married Jonnie West, the son of Hall of Fame basketball player Jerry West, in 2019), had an emotional exit from the USGA stage in what is likely her last competition. Playing on her 10-year U.S. Women’s Open victory exemption, the now-mother of a 3-year-old daughter (Makenna) is walking away from the competitive golf stage. The historic Women’s Open on the Monterey Peninsula provided Wie West a fitting opportunity to make one last final walk.

She waved to the fans lining the 18th green, hugged fellow competitor and three-time champion/World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, also playing in likely her last Women’s Open, and 2015 winner In Gee Chun. Her parents were there. So was Makenna. Jonnie was on the bag.

And she conjured up one last championship memory by holing a 31-foot par putt to shoot 79.

“Honestly, the thing that stands out the most for me was having my husband on the bag,” said Wie West fighting back emotional tears. “He's my partner in life, and to have him walk down 18 with me this week, to have him there by my side the whole week just meant everything to me, to have my family out here, to be at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Everything was just incredible.” 

Michelle Wie West attracted a plethora of reporters to Florida when she claimed the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links title at 13. (USGA/Sam Greenwood)

Michelle Wie West attracted a plethora of reporters to Florida when she claimed the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links title at 13. (USGA/Sam Greenwood)

As Wie West strolled the picturesque fairways of this iconic venue that has hosted six U.S. Opens, 23 years of USGA memories likely came flooding back. There are many. And here are some of mine.

A year after that first WAPL appearance, Wie West showed her first was no fluke. In the Round of 32, she hit all 17 greens in defeating future U.S. Women’s Open champion Hilary Homeyer (now Lunke), 2 and 1, at Kemper Lakes. She was all of 11. The next year at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort, she advanced to the semifinals before bowing out to Hwanhee Lee. She beat fellow Hawaiian Amanda Wilson in the quarterfinals in 19 holes.

Then she’d get the biggest prize to date. At the tender age of 13, Wie became the youngest champion of any USGA championship, defeating Virada Nirapathpongporn, a Duke University All-American at Ocean Hammock Golf Club, 1 up, in the WAPL final. Wie had become such a phenomenon that Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson made the drive down to Palm Coast, Fla., from his Jacksonville residence to cover the final. I was there to cover the championship but my wife went into labor with our daughter, Veronica, five weeks early, so I had to grab a flight home the morning the championship began. Veronica was later introduced to Michelle later that summer during a weather suspension during the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Nirapathpongporn would get her USGA title a month later in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Philadelphia C.C. Wie was at that championship as well but made an early exit when she lost to Maru Martinez in the Round of 64, 1 down. Going from the ninth hole to the 10th tee, Martinez took a restroom break and then accepted a ride in a cart to the tee. A USGA official saw this unfold and reported the violation, which resulted in a loss-of-hole penalty. Despite the break, Wie missed a short putt on 18 to extend the match.

Some 5,000 spectators came out to Canoe Brook C.C. in Summit, N.J., to watch Michelle Wie West try to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Open. (USGA/John Mummert)

Some 5,000 spectators came out to Canoe Brook C.C. in Summit, N.J., to watch Michelle Wie West try to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Open. (USGA/John Mummert)

By 2005, Wie already was a well-established star, despite being all of 15 years of age. She had competed against the men in the PGA Tour’s Sony Open a year earlier at 14. But she desperately wanted to earn an invitation to the Masters. One avenue was winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links. So she filed an entry in 2004, but didn’t qualify from a site near Hershey, Pa. In 2005, she remarkably advanced to the championship at Shaker Run Golf Course outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The place was absolutely buzzing with excitement. Beth Major, my colleague from the USGA communications team, flew in to handle the crowd. Gallery ropes were brought down from NCR Country Club, which was hosting the U.S. Senior Open later that summer. USGA photographer John Mummert, who wasn’t originally assigned to the event, flew in to just shoot Wie. Media came from everywhere, and more would have arrived had the championship not coincided with The Open Championship taking place concurrently on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Not everyone in the field was thrilled with Wie’s presence. Veteran amateur Danny Green, the only player to have made the finals in the U.S. Amateur (1989), U.S. Mid-Amateur (1999) and U.S. Amateur Public Links (2001), made some derogatory pre-championship comments that almost certainly fired up Wie.

Despite some turbulence in stroke play, Wie advanced to match play and when she extinguished Auburn standout Will Claxton, 1 up, Kirk Herbstreit, who then had a radio show in nearby Columbus, wanted Claxton as a guest to discuss the match. When C.D. Hockersmith stepped to the first tee the following morning, the Indiana native looked defeated before the round-of-32 encounter began. Cameras and fans were everywhere. In fact, Shaker Run made me put up a note on the website that all available parking on-site was full. Hockersmith bowed out, 6 and 5.

Later that afternoon, Jim Renner, an NCAA Division II standout at Johnson & Wales, became victim No. 3 by a 3-and-1 margin. By then, the media center was completely full of reporters. One wanted to do a piece on what a 15-year-old does away from the golf course. We pointed him in the direction of Mr. Wie. Don’t think that story was every told.

Marty Parkes, the USGA’s senior director of communications, arrived the following morning to assist with the operation. While we were one more win away from moving the media room from an old cart barn to the clubhouse, it never happened. Wie’s run was ended by eventual champion and No. 63 seed Clay Ogden, 5 and 4. By the afternoon, Shaker Run was a ghost town. Only a handful of spectators stuck around to watch future PGA Tour star Anthony Kim play his semifinal match against Martin Ureta. 

Some 200 reporters were credentialed to cover Michelle Wie West's attempt to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Open at Canoe Brook C.C. (USGA/John Mummert)

Some 200 reporters were credentialed to cover Michelle Wie West's attempt to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Open at Canoe Brook C.C. (USGA/John Mummert)

That week, the USGA’s website drew more than 11 million page views, second only to that year’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

The next summer, the circus came to Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., for U.S. Open final qualifying. Wie had navigated her way through a local 18-hole qualifier in Hawaii, and figured her best shot of playing at Winged Foot that June was to attend one of the “designated” PGA Tour sites that had more qualifying spots available.

You would have thought the PGA Tour event down the road at Westchester C.C. had already begun with the amount of TV trucks, cameras and people in attendance. More than 200 reporters showed up. At one point, the club had to close the public gate from the adjacent Short Hills Mall and cap attendance at 5,000. During the 36-hole competition on the North and South courses, the Metropolitan Golf Association’s website crashed from the number of page views. The USGA jumped in to host scoring.

My former boss, Brett Avery, was on site for Golf Digest blogging every move by Wie. Nobody cared that Brett Quigley was the medalist at 11-under 131. Wie, who posted a 68 on the shorter South Course, posted an afternoon 75 on the North and missed by five strokes of being in a playoff for the last of the available 18 spots. Afterwards, she conducted a press conference in front of a plethora of reporters.

She would never make the attempt again.

But the Wie adventures would continue for the next decade. In the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open, Wie tied for third, just missing out on being in the 18-hole Monday playoff between Pat Hurst and eventual winner Annika Sorenstam at Newport (R.I.) Country Club. It would be her last top-10 finish in the championship until her remarkable victory eight years later at Pinehurst when she held off Stacy Lewis to claim her only major.

Injuries, coupled with exceedingly high expectations, took its toll on Wie. She withdrew from a pair of U.S. Women’s Opens, including the 2017 championship at Trump National G.C. in Bedminster, N.J. She would eventually announce her retirement ahead of the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, stating her final go-around would be at Pebble Beach.

If this is truly the end for Wie, it definitely has been quite a ride. Maybe she returns to the USGA scene 17 years from now to play the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. By then, Makenna will be in college. For now, Wie will be a mom, wife and an inspiration to many girls with similar golfing dreams.

And truly at peace with her accomplishments.   

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.