The last time Michelle Wie played around these parts she withdrew after the second round of the U.S. Women’s Open with a wrist injury. A 12-year-old Alexis Thompson looked prime to beat an ailing Wie, who walked off after 27 holes at Pine Needles 17 over par.
That was so 2007.
Here in 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2, where the women are providing the USGA’s encore performance, a healthy Wie heads into Sunday tied for the lead with another 24-year-old, Amy Yang at 2-under 208. They are the only players under par and four strokes ahead of an eclectic foursome.
“I love being in contention,” said Wie. “I love feeling nervous on the first tee, I love that whole – every shot really counts, whether you miss it or make it. I just love it.”
Alexis Thompson (now known as “Lexi”) played alongside Wie on Saturday and looked poised to overtake her until back-to-back double-bogeys on the eighth and ninth holes sent her tumbling down the leaderboard.
When Wie’s birdie putt dropped on the ninth green, her father B.J. screamed so loudly a fan in front of him jumped. There was a five-shot swing in that two-hole stretch, putting Wie six in front of Thompson.
After Wie hit an 8-iron into the par-5 10th in two, she went to 6 under for the tournament and her mother Bo’s yelp could be heard high above the crowd.
Team Wie was pumped.
But then Wie’s driver went a little wobbly and she found herself chipping out of the pines. Meanwhile Yang, runner-up at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, took the lead with birdies on the 10th and 12th.
The Se Ri Park look-alike is coming off a four-week break from competition. She was weary of travel and wanted to stay put with her dog Bori.
Back home in Orlando, Fla., Yang played nearly every day at Orange Tree Golf Club where she’s a member. Orange Tree is known for its tight fairways and Payne Stewart practiced there in 1999 to prep for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst.
Yang and Wie played the first two rounds together this week and are friends on tour. Wie congratulated Yang on a good round in Korean as she walked into the media room.
“She’s just a really consistent player,” said Wie, “barely misses a fairway, She rarely misses a green; she’s a great putter.”
Of course the morning buzz belonged to Juli Inkster, who at 53 posted the low round of the tournament, a 4-under 66, to put herself in the penultimate group on Sunday. It’s the perfect bookend to Lucy Li mania. Li, by the way, walked 11 holes with the Wie and Thompson, two former child prodigies.
Inkster turns 54 on June 24 and a victory on Sunday crush the mark of oldest player to win a major, set by 1960 Titleholders Championship at 45 years, 7 months, 11 days. Beth Daniel own the title of oldest to win on the LPGA after her 2003 triumph at the BMO Financial Group Canadian Women’s Open at 46 years, 8 months, 29 days.
“This game is so weird,” Inkster said. “You never know. It’s like, the first day I played great. Yesterday I played horrible. Today I played great. Hopefully I’m going to break the pattern and have a good one tomorrow.”
The leaderboard is crammed with interesting storylines. Amateur Minjee Lee met Catherine Lacoste for the first time on Tuesday at the U.S. Women’s Open Champions Dinner. Lee was a guest of Karrie Webb’s and heard 34 past champions say a few words about their victories.
Meadow, fresh off the Curtis Cup, is making her professional debut this week. Originally an alternate the championship, Meadow got the call from Far Hills while at a Curtis Cup training camp in Atlanta.
Meadow is a native of Northern Ireland and a recent graduate of Alabama. No player from Ireland or Northern Ireland has ever won an LPGA event.
“I’ve worked my whole life to this,” said Meadow.
Thompson posted a 4-over 74 and issued a statement on Twitter after the round explaining that she ducked an NBC interview after the round to get in range work under threatening skies. She’s at 3 over along with former Women’s Open champs Webb and So Yeon Ryu.
Even Stacy Lewis, who after a disappointing 74 is six strokes back, could post an early low number to stir the leaders’ nerves.
“You can think and you can dream all you want,” Inkster said. “But the bottom line is you’ve got to come out and make the shots.”
For Wie, this marks the third time she has had at least a share of the lead going into the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open.
The game’s brightest star has never looked better.