By Ron Sirak
PINEHURST, N.C. - The first time Michelle Wie played in the U.S. Women's Open was 2003 at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, finishing T-39 at the age of 13.
It seemed at the time like she'd contend in this tournament every year, especially after she followed it with efforts of T-13 and T-23 the next two years.
But remarkably, the last time Wie was even remotely a factor in the national championship was 2006 when, at 16, she tied for third at Newport CC in Rhode Island.
(Getty Images photo)
Since then, like much of Wie's more than a decade-long star-turn on the big stage of professional golf, it has been a struggle as there were two withdrawals, two missed cuts, a T-55 and a T-35 in the Women's Open.
That great finish at Newport preceded the great collapse of 2007 when, in eight injury-plagued LPGA events, she missed three cuts, withdrew twice and played to a scoring average of 76.68.
There was a bounce-back in 2009 and '10 when she had one LPGA victory in each of those years and then another slide as she missed 10 cuts in 2012 and seven in the first half of 2013.
But sometime around the Solheim Cup last August, things started to fall into place for Wie.
Now, she goes into the weekend at Pinehurst No. 2 positioned to make a run at her first major championship after a two-under-par 68 Friday left her at four under through 36 holes.
Closing out her round in spectacular fashion, Wie finished birdie-birdie on a firm, fast sweltering track that was yielding very few low scores in the second round.
"End of the day yesterday, I was thinking if I just did this again, that would be nice," Wie said about backing up her opening-round 68 with another one. "But finishing with two birdies is always great."
Wie opened with eight straight pars, went birdie, bogey, then ran off six more pars before punctuating her round with the double exclamation points.
"It's a grind out there," she said. "It's not easy. Really grateful for the par putts that I made and some of the birdie putts that I made. I can't complain, I'll take it."
Anyone paying attention to women's golf this year would not be surprised by Wie's strong start here. After struggling for 18 months following graduation from Stanford in 2012, Michelle is playing the most consistent golf of her career this year.
In 12 starts, she has eight top-10 finishes, including a win at the Lotte Championship and a runner-up finish to Lexi Thompson in the first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
No longer the kid trying to survive in a world of adults, Wie is a 24-year-old woman with the sense of accomplishment that comes with a college degree and a renewed appreciation for her job, as well as a renewed passion that her struggles had diminished.
In addition to attitude - her coach David Leadbetter says "That bounce in her step and twinkle in her eye is back." - Wie is finding fairways with a stinger 3-wood and making putts.
Now in year two of her hunched-over tabletop-putting stance, she has climbed to No. 39 in total putts from a low of No. 124 in 2010.
"I'm just going to go out there and have fun," Wie said about her attitude going into the weekend. "I'm really grateful for the opportunity that I have. Being in contention, having the clubhouse lead for now, I'm just really excited for the weekend. I'm really excited that I have chance and I'm going to have a lot of fun this weekend."
If you had asked LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in January who he'd like to have in his winner's list this year going into the U.S. Women's Open he'd pretty much say what he has:
Jessica Korda, Karrie Webb and Anna Nordqvist twice each with Paula Creamer, Lydia Ko, Lizette Salas, Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, Thompson and Wie each winning once.
About the only thing else Whan could ask for would be for Wie to pick up her first major championship this year. And that could happen Sunday in the U.S. Women's Open - the biggest stage in women's golf.
"I think the U.S. Open, as an American, is one of the most important tournaments," Wie said. "But Sunday is a very, very long time, far away. Just take it shot by shot."
Those sound like the wise words of a mature woman who has had her heart broken by golf more than once — and learned a lot from the experience. Now, with that giddy-up back in her step, Michelle Wie could be ready for her first major title.