player knows when it’s time to step away. It gradually becomes obvious over time as the competitive desire fades away, as the mental tenacity dulls, as the shots become a little harder to hit. Or golf gets more difficult, less fun, more of a grin-and-bear-it sort of torture than a genuine pleasure. Or the body breaks down, with muscles and joints aching and creaking just enough to make a backswing shorter or turn a little tighter, even with a two-hour warmup.
While Michelle Wie West is still as competitive as ever, it’s her body that’s put up a stop sign, giving her the signal that the time to move on is now. When she announced last year at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club that this week at Pebble Beach would be her last, no one was surprised. It had been tough for the five-time LPGA Tour winner, battling through injuries and physical ailments while trying to still compete on Tour full-time. She’d been in the spotlight for years, essentially growing up inside the ropes in front of a camera, something that opened her up to plenty of criticism throughout the last decade.
In recent years, Wie West’s focus has been less on golf and more on advocacy for women and women’s athletics. She’s been one of the loudest voices in that arena, starting campaigns like the “#HoodieForGolf” movement which saw tie-dye sweatshirts with the LPGA Tour logo sold to raise money for the LPGA Renee Powell Fund and Clearview Legacy Foundation. She serves as tournament host for the Mizuho Americas Open, which crowned Rose Zhang as its first champion in June. And she’s participating in groups like the Nike Athlete Think Tank and angel-investing in female-owned golf companies like Sportsbox AI, making it her mission to drive value for female sports, both in and out of golf.
But as she walked up the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach on Friday, it wasn’t Michelle the leader, the advocate, the change-maker that people cared about. It was Michelle the golfer who brought fans to their feet, who made the bone-chilled spectators continuously applaud, who elicited a roar from the crowd that could’ve been heard in Carmel when her 30-foot par putt found the bottom of the cup.
“The putts definitely didn’t drop all week, and the game is a funny game, and making that long putt on 18 definitely was a sweeter sendoff,” said Wie West. “It just was such an emotional day starting from 1 tee. I’ve held back tears the entire round. It was fun. It was great to have my last round here at Pebble Beach. It feels surreal right now.”
Surreal is how everyone else is feeling too. Wie West played in her first LPGA Tour event at age 12 and in her last at 33, two decades that were chock full of highs and lows, incredible accomplishments and devastating defeats. She teed it up in a men’s event, playing the 2004 Sony Open and carding a second-round 68, ultimately finishing just one shy of making the cut. A 2009 LPGA Tour rookie, she won five times in a decade and a half, capturing titles all around the globe, from the United States to Mexico to Canada to Singapore. And she became a major champion, winning the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 after burying a par putt on the final green, another goosebump-giving highlight that plays on repeat this time of year.
Wie West is proud of all those moments, albeit for all sorts of different reasons. But she’s just as proud of some of the things she did off the course, as Michelle the person.
“I’m so proud of the fact that I shot 68 in a PGA Tour event. I’m also proud of almost qualifying for the men’s U.S. Open,” she said. “Going to Stanford (University) while turning professional, finishing out my high school educational career and entering Stanford. Getting my degree, that was probably my proudest moment because it’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid to get a degree from Stanford. Then, obviously, winning the U.S. Open was a huge highlight of mine. Another big proudest moment there because growing up, I’d always wanted to win the U.S. Open.
“My life on tour, it was up and down. I can’t say it was all good. I’ve had some of the worst years, especially dealing with injuries. A lot of the years there’s a lot of heartache that is associated with it, truthfully. But you know, it was all worth it.”
Her resiliency amid those downs inspired others. Meg Mallon met Wie West in a Hawaii pro-am before the phenom could legally drive a golf cart and has always been impressed with her ability to handle everything thrown at her, some of which wasn’t hers to catch.
“She has (grown) into a really good human being. That’s what I was happy to see,” said the 18-time LPGA Tour winner. “There was so much scrutiny on her and so much attention and kids don’t always make it out of that environment very well. She’s been exceptional in her adult life and getting married and then seeing her have a baby and become a mom and still feeling a responsibility to women and women’s sports.
“Now that she has a young daughter, wanting to make sure that her daughter has a better life than her. It’s really inspiring to see what she is doing and where she’s going with her life.”
And the ups were what gave hope to young Korean Americans aspiring to be professional golfers, players like Andrea Lee and Allisen Corpuz, the latter of which is in contention this week at Pebble Beach. “She’s done so much for women’s golf, for Hawaii golf,” Corpuz said of Wie West. “It’s so awesome to see her making this transition out and being able to compete with her in her final tournament, it’s just really awesome.”
For Lee, Wie West is someone she’d like to emulate. “Michelle’s definitely been a role model to me ever since I was young,” Lee said. “First, she is Korean American just like me, and I looked up to her so much. She was a phenom from a very young age when she was a teenager, and she was an idol to me. I’ve gotten to know her over the past few years, which has been really cool. I definitely look up to her.”
As she looks ahead to retirement, Wie West is excited about a lot of different things. Immediately, she can’t wait to put her clubs in the “darkest corner of her garage,” tend to her garden and spend time with her daughter Makenna and husband Jonnie. Long-term, she’s looking forward to taking on even more passion projects as she works to make a difference in the lives of women and girls, both in and out of the sports space.
“As a player, I was so focused on winning, I didn’t allow myself to have the capacity to elevate the LPGA Tour outside of just playing,” Wie West explained. “One of the reasons why I stepped away from the Tour is because I wanted to, in my now more free time, allow myself the capacity to work on things that I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about elevating the women’s game, and not just in golf, but just female sports in general. Also working with the big organizations to increase access to the sport, decrease the barriers and get more girls of color into the game of golf.”
When asked if she has any regrets in retrospect, Wie West can’t think of very many. Not one to take mulligans, she has accepted the choices and mistakes she has made throughout her career with grace and poise, never questioning the what-ifs.
“There’s a lot of mistakes that I’ve made in that career. Are those regrets? No, because I’ve learned from them,” she said. “You have to make mistakes; you have to make the wrong decision. From time to time, I think the only regret that I have, or thing that I would learn from if I did it again, is to be more patient with my body. I rushed it when I should (have) just let things rest naturally instead of rushing the process. That’s probably something that I would learn to do better next time. But no regrets.
“Made a lot of bold choices in my career, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of being fearless at times and just doing what felt right. I hope that I inspire a lot of other girls to make bold and fearless decisions and choices in their careers, as well.”
Little does Wie West know she has inspired all of us to do just that, to always go for the green in two, to swing for the fences when it comes to chasing our dreams. Because you never know what could happen and you never know what you could affect. You just might change the world for the next generation.
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