KAPOLEI, Hawaii — Michelle Wie began last week reminiscing about the first time she played on the LPGA Tour.
She was 12 and still wore braces when she earned a spot in the 2002 Takefugi Classic through a Monday qualifier. She had a swing so powerfully smooth that only weeks earlier Tom Lehman gave her the nickname “Big Wiesy” because she reminded him of Ernie Els.
“I didn’t play very well. I was so star-struck on the range,” Wie said Sunday. “I was like, ‘This is so cool.' I was thinking I could never go back to junior golf after this.”
More than 12 years later, Wie was in complete control of her swing in a strong wind at Ko Olina. She made up a four-shot deficit against Angela Stanford in eight holes, took the lead with a birdie on the par-3 12th and closed with a 67 late Saturday for a two-shot victory in the LPGA LOTTE Championship.
It was a significant win for the 24-year-old Wie.
She won for the first time since graduating from Stanford in the spring of 2012. Wie spent five years splitting her time between classes and the LPGA Tour, which would seem to make it difficult to fulfill her golfing potential. She won for the first time in nearly four years.
And while it was her first victory in the U.S. — her other two were in Canada and Mexico — it happened on her home island of Oahu.
“I had so many family and friends come up and say, ‘I waited 12 years for his.' And I was like, ‘I know. Me, too,” Wie said with a laugh, thinking back to her LPGA debut as a seventh-grader.
“It’s crazy how long it took. The last couple of years, I put so much pressure on myself to win. I knew I really wanted to play well. But this week I said, ‘I’m going to go out there and put no expectations on myself and have fun.' And I think I did that.”
Wie looked stronger than ever with a collection of half-swings to keep the ball low in the wind. She missed three birdie putts inside 10 feet on the back nine — including one from inside 3 feet — and made a conservative bogey she could afford. She still won by two.
Coming off a runner-up finish in the first major of the year at Kraft Nabisco Championship, Wie now leads the LPGA Tour money list at $616,555.
Even with only three LPGA victories, Wie remains a star attraction in women’s golf. Some of that dates to her exploits as a teenager and her attempt to compete against the men. When she was 16, Wie had a chance to win three majors.
“From 16, I’ve been through a lot of things,” she said. “After so many experiences, I’ more grateful for good play when I do play well. I’m having a lot of fun. ... I’m definitely happy because I’m playing well. I’m enjoying being out there. I’m treating it more like a game when I’m out there. ‘Let’s see if I can hit this shot or make this putt.' It’s not life or death out there.”
But a victory in Hawaii does mean joining a hula dance at Ko Olina. The 6-footer from Hawaii looked more comfortable bending over her putts than going through a few hula moves.
“It went a lot longer than I expected,” Wie said. “I’m not the smoothest dancer alive. But I think I made a lot of friends happy. They texted me and said, ‘You’re never living that down — ever.' It was awkward. But I had fun. It was awesome.”