You could see the nods and glances as people looked around Pebble Beach’s Gallery Cafe, or as visitors sat on the patio overlooking the cypress-lined 18th green at Stillwater Cove. They appeared at lunch with Brandi Chastain and Kristi Yamaguchi, and while climbing up a flight of stairs, and walking through a lobby.
That’s Michelle Wie Westthat 6-foot-1 fixture of collective memory and modern golf history.
She didn’t earn as much as she wanted, and certainly not as much as many people thought she would or should have. But after nearly a quarter century in the spotlight, she’s still one of the smartest stars women’s golf has ever had, a player many people outside of golf know as a star even if they don’t know golf.
The competitive golf part of Wie’s life will most likely be done before dawn on Sunday, when the U.S. Women’s Open is scheduled to conclude at Pebble Beach. If things don’t go well, and they might not because Wie West’s husband will be her caddy for the first time and she’s barely played lately, it could be over by Friday night. After the Open, she has no plans to return to elite competition, although she avoids the word “retirement” in public (and admits to occasionally using it in private).
She is 33.
That went fast, didn’t it?
In 2000, when she was 10 years old and Bill Clinton was president, she played the US Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. She won the event when she was 13, the same age she made an LPGA tournament cut and had a turn in third place on the weekend leaderboard of a major tournament. She played a PGA Tour event at 14, turned pro at 15, hit three top-five finishes in her first three majors as a pro, battled a wrist problem, won the Open at 24 and then spent years with more injuries, cuts and withdrawals. than strong signs.
So it wasn’t so fast, after all. Soon, however, it will apparently be over. Barring a win this weekend or a surprise in the coming years, Wie West will finish with five LPGA Tour wins, including the 2014 Open at Pinehurst, tied for 69th on the career wins list. It adds up to a much better career than most players, albeit short of the powerful expectations that have followed Wie West from the start and flowed from a mix of Internet-age youth, talent, celebrity and marketability. (By comparison, Inbee Park, a 34-year-old player from South Korea, has won seven majors but has long attracted a fraction of the public attention that Wie West has commanded.)
“What’s the right word for this?” Wie West said in an interview in a sun-drenched living room, completely outside of any aides.
“I feel very – confident that I had the career that I wanted,” she continued at the end. “Obviously, I wish I could do more too. I think anyone and everyone thinks that.”
But, she said, “the what ifs and the regrets and the ‘I wish I could have done that better’ can make you really crazy.”
Even last year’s transition announcement, to use her publicly preferred term, was derailed when her husband came down with Covid-19 and Wie West’s parents stayed behind to help with childcare. Ready to detail the meltdown she launched on Instagram the previous week, Wie West wound up almost single-handedly at the 2022 Open in North Carolina.
She’s pondered for years whether it’s time to stop playing, frustrated by injuries and, more recently, torn by the notion that her family of three only has so much time together. In 2021, vulgar comments about Wie West by Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, jolted her into a fresh sense of purpose.
But eventually there came a point, she said, when she realized the stakes were finally too high, when she feared her body would be so broken that she wouldn’t even be able to play a round for pleasure with her daughter. Her clubs have been in her bag almost exclusively ever since.
“It’s hard,” she said, “it’s hard to know when the right time is to leave.”
That’s certainly in part because, for an athlete in any sport, retiring from competition means the stats are done and the resume is, with few exceptions, frozen. For Wie West, retirement or transition or whatever you want to call it meant reigniting the inevitable debate about whether she was a wasted or overrated talent.
She hears it, of course. She gets it too.
“People love to rant and have their own feeling and whatever, and they have every right to: They’ve been invested in my career,” she said. “I know I didn’t score as many as I, quote unquote, should have.”
At the same time, she seems to wonder how fair it is. She earned a degree from Stanford and won the US Open, and those two feats, she figures, are what she wanted to do anyway.
And yet she can still run through all the ways her career could have been different: if she had held a share of the lead at the 2005 Open at Cherry Hills, if her quest that year to earn a spot in the Masters had worked. out if she made the cut at her first PGA Tour event instead of missing it by a stroke.
She enters this week’s 156-woman Open with measured expectations against a deep field.
The reigning champion, Minjee Lee, has won two majors since 2021 and is not ranked in the top five in the world. And there’s Rose Zhang, the 20-year-old Stanford student who last month won her first tournament as a professional. Wie West’s group, which will tee off at 8:28 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, includes three-time major winner In Gee Chun and Annika Sorenstam, who has recorded 10 major wins in her career and received a special exemption into this week’s field.
This spring, Wie West reflected on how she needed to build up her stamina for the rigors of a major, how she needed to perfect her iron and wedge game before returning to one of golf’s biggest stages, especially since it will be played this year. on one of the sport’s most beloved courses.
“Just have to believe in myself, just get to a point where I feel confident that I can execute the shots and make the putts,” she said. “And I hope that everything will come very quickly.”
She plans to stay closely connected to the sport — she recently hosted the LPGA tournament that Zhang won — but insisted she doesn’t think much about how she’s reshaped perceptions of the game, which she said still fascinates her.
Even now, she said, she will play with her husband and be convinced that, like every other golfer who has won, lost or never contested a major, she has unlocked the mysteries of the sport.
“You get that feeling and it feels really good, and you’re like, ‘I think I’ve got the game figured out.’ I figured it out!” she said. “I still catch myself saying that almost every time I play, so I know it’s an itch to want to get better.”
Pretty soon, after this time, it will happen away from the spotlight.