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Michelle Wie's U.S. Open victory is brightest chapter in her remarkable golf journey

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports

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Michelle Wie enjoys her major moment on Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2. (AP)

Michelle Wie enjoys her major moment on Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2. (AP)

It's hard to conceive of a neater story in golf this year than Michelle Wie, on a summer evening in the sand hills of North Carolina, holding a United States Women's Open trophy. What an enriching sight. A bright, personable, 24-year-old Hawaiian won her country's national championship; and what an unforgettable, sometimes hellish journey to get there, too.

Wie's story has it all. Triumphant arrival. Accolades, even awe. Then, turbulence. Skepticism. Failure. Missteps, rules violations. A career seemingly gone awry. Pressure and public opinion, crushingly negative.

And this is all before she graduated high school.

Then, the craziest thing happened in this keep-it-to-140-characters-or-I'm-bored world. Michelle Wie slowed her journey down. She breathed. She didn't collapse. She lived. Thrived, even.

She went to Stanford. Made new friends. She painted. Opened her mind. Ignored the haters. She kept playing golf, but without the urgency of an early career perhaps over-burdened by parents who meant well, but stumbled. She grew into a lovely young woman.

Oh, and she still had a golf swing to die for.

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Michelle Wie recovered from a disastrous No. 16 to win her first career major. (AP)

Michelle Wie recovered from a disastrous No. 16 to win her first career major. (AP)

In June of 2012, she graduated from Stanford with a degree in communications, and began playing the LPGA, full-time. Most everyone wrote her off as a has-been. She didn't, though.

Flash forward to Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2. After rounds of 68-68-72, Michelle Wie teed off in the final twosome at the U.S. Open. She'd never won a major.

And yet, the strikingly tall woman who strode the fairways was a woman with a new pedigree. She'd finished second to Lexi Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco. While some saw it evidence of Thompson having the career Wie never had, Wie just took the good play and rolled it into a win in Hawaii at the Lotte Championship in her home state. She did the hula. She looked happy as hell. We didn't know it at the time, but she was busy arriving at a peaceful state that would bear the ultimate fruit.

Now, to Pinehurst. After an opening Sunday bogey that probably aroused her doubters, Wie strung together eight straight pars, the currency of victory at a U.S. Open. Meanwhile, of course, tough Stacy Lewis was pressing her on the leader board. It's what Lewis does. She stitched together a 66, essentially saying, "Chew on that, Wiesy. Take all your nerves and history of failure and pressure since you were 12 years old and see if you can't fend me off. I'll be here in the clubhouse, having a cold drink, waiting for a playoff."

Wie's answer was striking. She eagled the par-5 10th, then ripped off five more pars to arrive at the 16th with a three-shot lead. A coronation seemed certain, especially after her tee shot on the par-3 15th, a 7-iron from 170, cut so beautifully to the green. Wie walked back to her caddy with a look of steely certainty, even a hint of a smile. She stared at her golf ball's flight, almost proudly. This is mine, she seemed to be saying. It was beautiful golf.

But that 16th hole. A drive into the fairway bunker. A second, out of the bunker, awry. Her ball landed in a Pinehurst mess of native grass and hillocks, in the bunker complex. Here's the worst part: Nobody could find her golf ball.

It seemed to be happening in super slow-motion, Wie and USGA officials and her caddy and her playing competitor Amy Yang, all with heads down, poking in the grass. No way Michelle Wie was going to blow the U.S. Open with a lost ball, was she?

They found the golf ball. It was unplayable. Now, the tough part. Somehow save double-bogey. She dropped 80 yards back, and instead of shanking or skulling or chili-dipping, she hit her pitch on to the green and – with that "table top" putting play, a style she invented, an eyesore of a style, but somehow effective – two-putted for the best double bogey of her life.

The three-shot lead was now one, but Wie did the craziest thing walking off the green. She smiled. Almost laughed. She said later she was telling herself, "you always make it hard on yourself." That only begins to tell the tale of the decade of failed expectations and second-guessing and mistakes that dominated the Michelle Wie Story, from 2003-2014.

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Michelle Wie's first U.S. Open was noted more for hype than her actual game. (Getty Images)

Michelle Wie's first U.S. Open was noted more for hype than her actual game. (Getty Images)

And then No. 17, the 160-yard par-3. A one-shot lead. Lewis warming up on the range. The pressure could have suffocated Wie. Instead, the very thing that made the golf world fall in love with her, the very thing that frustrated the golf world so when she didn't use it to great success – her golf swing – became the only thing that mattered. She cut that 8-iron so purely, and with such great muscle memory under pressure, it landed gently, 25 feet from the cup. Michelle Wie's talent shined when it mattered most.

That she buried the birdie putt to damn near clinch the U.S. Open; that she pumped her fist like a young woman about to be a national champion; it was all the product of that talent, that swing, and most important, her calm soul, meshing at last.

I had the good fortune to cover the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge, Wie's first. She was 13. I interviewed her and her parents, B.J. and Bo, at the practice range on the Tuesday of the Open. Michelle couldn't have been more 13. She talked about Harry Potter, getting her braces off and hating to practice. She was 6 feet tall. She was amazing. And yet, that was the Open where Danielle Ammaccapane got in her face, barked at her etiquette, and B.J. Wie told us about it, and we wrote about it, and the Wie circus was off and running and she never recovered from the onslaught of scrutiny. She'd arrived at Pumpkin Ridge fresh off of playing in the final group at the Kraft Nabisco with Annika, and fresh off of winning the 2003 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links. The sky was the limit. But after the Ammaccapane incident, everything changed. Wie wouldn't win a thing for the next seven years.

At Pumpkin Ridge, I so enjoyed her golf swing, I rooted for Wie, knowing how good she could be for the game. But over the next decade, I cringed as it all went wrong – offending Annika, the heat exhaustion, the failed forays at men's events. It was easy for many cruel people to laugh at Wie, dismiss her.

Somehow, Wie persevered. Her character proved stronger than most doubters thought. Life doesn't usually make happy endings, but Sunday at Pinehurst is as close as one can get in golf. And no, this isn't an "ending" for Wie, not at all. But in one way, it is. It's the end of the bad part of the journey. It's the end of doubting Michelle Wie. It's the start of enjoying her, being happy for her, watching that golf swing, watching her control her game and her mind when it matters most.

On Sunday evening, I saw a picture of her cradling the trophy on the Pinehurst green. The summer light was pretty; the background of the North Carolina pines was lovely. Her smile was huge. It was really nice to see.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

69-68-64-64 – Kevin Streelman, winner, PGA Tour Travelers Championship, TPC River Highlands, Cromwell, Conn.

OK, Michelle Wie – let's see you try to birdie the last seven holes to win a PGA Tour event by one stroke.

Holy week-after-U.S.-Open-blues-vanished, Batman!

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Kevin Streelman celebrates with his 6-month-old daughter Sophia after winning the Travelers Championship. (AP)

Kevin Streelman celebrates with his 6-month-old daughter Sophia after winning the Travelers Championship. (AP) …

Usually, the Travelers in Connecticut has that post-major laziness to it. But Kevin Streelman made sure to blow that theory up, setting a PGA Tour record with seven consecutive closing birdies, besting Mike Souchak's six consecutive closing birdies at the 1956 St. Paul Open.

How does Sergio Garcia feel about now – he went 65-67 on the weekend, after opening rounds of 65-69 and all he got to do was congratulate Streelman on his awesomeness.

Best part is, Streelman had missed four consecutive cuts entering the Travelers. The lesson: when the muse strikes you, don't resist. Roll with the flow, Streelman-style.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"I'm not sure the Michelle Wie of old would have handled the situation at 16 the same way." – Mark Rolfing, NBC, at the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

Home run of a comment at the most critical moment.

The bonanza of possible tragedy Wie faced at the 16th hole was so … so … well, MICHELLE WIE-LIKE, that it was impossible to ignore. Her almost-lost golf ball, her consultations with rules officials, her flat-out staring the possibility of choking the U.S. Open away – it all had the Wie haters salivating with joy.

How many times have we seen the uber-talented young lady be her own worst enemy? How many times have we seen mistakes from missed short putts to errors in strategy to loss of poise to even rules mistakes? A damn-near decade's worth, that's how many.

So for Wie to not melt down; for Wie to take her drop, take her "good" double bogey; for Wie to even laugh about it; and, most important, for Wie to deliver the goods on the 17th hole was the essence of Michelle Wie arriving as a U.S. Open champion.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

All that said … come on, Wiesy! With a three-shot lead at the U.S. Open, don't even bring double- or triple-bogey into play.

Her tee shot into the fairway bunker on 16 was unfortunate, but the lesson Tiger Woods would tell her would be: Don't bring double- or triple-bogey into the conversation. Hit an 8-iron out, lay up, take bogey, live to fight another day.

Wie tried to hit a hybrid out of the sand and lost it right, into that thicket of ugliness greenside. She damn near lost the golf ball.

So let's go back out to the 16th fairway, remind Wie that the mental game is even more important than the physical game, remind her to ask herself what the greatest major championship lead-holder of all time would do and … give that Wiesy a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Just in time for our summer consumption: the great Tiger Woods returns.

Tiger is back, sooner than most thought, and admittedly "rusty." But the 14-time major champion, 79-time PGA Tour winner will play in his own event on Thursday, the Quicken Loans National at Congressional.

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Tiger Woods (AP)

Tiger Woods (AP)

Cool. So, we get Tiger in the late June heat of the D.C. area. He's not only back, folks, he'll be sweating his brains out.

This is all great news. In the last month-plus, we've had wins from Rory, Adam Scott, a legendary Martin Kaymer major championship performance, and now we get Tiger.

Plus, that young woman from Hawaii. She done good, too.

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