It’s hard to imagine that just a 2-under 68 would constitute a surge to the top of the leaderboard, but this is a U.S. Open and Opens are different.
Playing at Pinehurst No. 2 in the 2014 U.S. Open is like trying to walk on ice. The course is so difficult; any little flinch puts your tee shot in the native waste areas spread with loose sand and fescue, any little flinch lands your approach shot on the edge of the greens’ level areas and then slowly and inexorably off the green and into the swale below.
Michelle Wie successfully navigated all of that and turned three birdies and a bogey into a 4-under, 4-shot lead as Stacy Lewis, Thursday’s leader at 3-under, slipped down the leaderboard with a 3-over 73.
As the day wound down, Lexi Thompson ran off three straight birdies on her back nine to also shoot 68 and move into 2nd at 1-under; Michelle by 3. Lexi and Michelle are the only two players in the surviving field of 71 to be under par and will be in the last group on Saturday.
Michelle sat down in the media center and began by talking about how she managed to move back to prominence after being viewed as a struggling college player for a couple of years:
“I don’t know. I never really thought of it that way, I guess. I’m kind of not really thinking about the score. I think this year I just tried to think about every shot, every hole. And I’ve talked a lot about this with other players, the older players and some of the guys, as well.”
“I think I used to be too worried about the final score and where I was standing. I was kind of too concerned about what place I was in, instead of just trying to play the best I could every hole. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying not to focus on if I’m leading or not, if I’m second or third, how many back I am, but what I can shoot the next day, what I can shoot today.”
And she went on to talk about how she’s matured as a player. Rather than worrying about bad holes that could lead to a missed cut, she tucks them away in the past and moves forward:
“Yeah, for sure. I think like I said before, I think if I was 2-over for four holes I would kind of worry about I’ve dropped this many places or whatnot. But now I’m trying to think about, oh, that already happened. I’m just trying to think about what I can do from here on out. I’m really just trying to — it sounds really cliche, but really just trying to stay in the present.”
“Working hard to forget about the past, not just trying to hold on and worry about the future or whatnot. But I feel like if I do the best I can right now and I hit shots I’m supposed to hit, then everything will work out. Just try not to worry about it so much.”
Michelle has garnered quite a bit of attention with her idiosyncratic, “tabletop” putting style where she bends at the waist and putts with her back parallel with the green. But it turns out that her newly found solid putting results are more a function of an attitude adjustment than a style adjustment:
“Yeah, I’m just the same with my everything game. If it goes in, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m just going to try to hit the best putt I can.”
“I was talking a lot with Meg [Mallon], with Beth Daniel a lot, and a couple of the guys, just really looking at the difference between — I’ve kind of asked a lot of people what’s the difference between a good putter and a great putter? Beth has told me, Meg has told me, great putters, they make it, they make it. And if not, then not.”
“Sometimes I worry about it too much. And I want to make it too much. To think about it. [Now] I’m going out, if I hit it the right speed, if I hit it the right line, chances are, hopefully, it will go in. That’s kind of the mentality I have. I think it’s been working a little bit.”
Because Michelle was in the doldrums for the two years after she graduated from Stanford in 2012, it might have appeared that she lost her drive. But it didn’t feel that way to her:
“You know, I never lost it. I think that it’s a lot more fun when you work hard. The results show. But I’ve been very patient, even when I didn’t play well. I worked hard. I knew I could get better. I knew I could improve. But that’s the game of golf. I think that’s what’s so fun about it. You work hard, you work hard, it’s a challenging game. You can never quite perfect it.”
“I love working on my game. I love working on different shots. Just trying to get better every day. I never really lost a sense of determination or drive. It is a lot more fun when you work hard and the results show. It kind of motivates you to work even harder, I think.”
So what will it be like for Michelle playing in the last group in a Major? She goes all the way back to the first one she played in to sum it all up:
“I think playing in the final group of a Major, you still get the same nerves, you still are very nervous. It’s still very exciting. I still remember when I played with Patricia [Meunier-Lebouc] and Annika in the final group at Kraft when I was 13 or 14. And that was more of a wow factor for me. Oh, my God, like I was pinching myself to see if this was really happening”
“I’m grateful for every time I’m in the final group, because it’s just so much fun. I love feeling the nerves. I love feeling nervous. I love every part of it. So I’m just grateful for that.”
So how does she feel about being paired with Lexi Thompson on Saturday? Do they get along? She does and so another comfort factor falls into place.
“Yeah, I really enjoy her company. Yeah, I think she’s a really good girl. Obviously, I’ve known her since she joined the Tour when she was real young. I’ve always tried to be a friend for her, kind of be there for her, because I know how hard it is to be out on Tour when you’re that young. And try to make her feel comfortable out here. Obviously, she’s really young. But, yeah, she’s a great girl. I really get along with her caddie as well, too, I have a fun time playing with her.”
And finally, with the endless curiosity we have about our sports stars, this “day-in-a-life” snapshot of how the rest of Michelle’s Friday would unfold. But what struck me was that even with an early-afternoon tee time, her day was going to end early:
Q. You have a late tee time tomorrow. What are your plans until then? How will you kill time?
“I mean, I go to bed really early, so I don’t really have that much daylight left in me, anyway. I’m probably going to eat lunch and then work out and just get physio and by the time that’s done it’s probably dinnertime, which is probably around 5 for me. I just recently got into Game of Thrones, so probably that will take me a couple good hours of watching that.”
Q. So you go to bed like 9?
“Like 8:30. I don’t make it to 9.”