RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Michelle Wie seemed destined to win the ANA Inspiration.
It appeared preordained that her name would be etched on the trophy multiple times.
That’s the powerful statement she made as a 13-year-old, playing her way into the final Sunday pairing with Annika Sorenstam and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc in her first appearance in the championship. That’s the message Wie sent finishing fourth as a 14-year-old and tying for third as a 16-year-old.
At 28, Wie is still waiting for that breakthrough, but with rejuvenated confidence her body and game might finally be back in good enough shape to make the Sunday leap into Poppie’s Pond.
“Mission Hills is a truly special place in my heart,” Wie said. “I still remember when I was first playing here, and all the memories that I had from that. I think I just draw upon that memory every time I come play here.”
Wie will have to get past another star highly motivated to erase the bad memories the Dinah Shore Course left her with a year ago.
Lexi Thompson, 23, will be paired with Wie through the first two rounds. Thompson made the winner’s leap into Poppie’s Pond four years ago, but those memories share space with last year’s controversial loss, when Thompson couldn’t overcome four penalty shots and eventually lost in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.
The Thompson-Wie pairing comes packed with high-voltage anticipation. They may be the two biggest “needle movers” in the women’s game.
“I’m just happy to be back in a good state of mind,” Thompson said.
The pairing rekindles memories of the Thompson-Wie final-round pairing four years ago. They were tied going into Sunday.
That didn’t end well for Wie.
Thompson won her first major.
Thompson ability to overpower the Dinah Shore Course was a large factor in her outdueling Wie. Thompson hit driver everywhere, playing a brand of bomb and gouge you normally only see in the men’s game.
Wie? She hit mostly 3-woods, playing a station-to-station strategy, to avoid the big misses her driver could saddle her with back then.
Times are different, it seems.
Wie will tee it up looking to attack with her driver this time around.
“Michelle was hitting 3-woods everywhere back then,” her swing coach David Leadbetter said. “It was like she was playing with a handbrake on. She was playing defensively. She’s naturally an attacking type player, and now she has so much more confidence in her driver.”
Wie started turning her draw into a cut in 2016, but it took more time to get comfortable with than she imagined, playing through injuries. She finally started honing a dependable fade last year, giving her a go-to shot that bled confidence through her entire bag.
Wie was playing virtually one club short in her bag four years ago.
“I’ll hit a lot more drivers,” Wie said. “My caddie and I talk about it a lot. I have more of a mentality that even if I’m in the rough, I’d rather be up there, kind of with that freer, playing more like a kid mindset. A lot of times we just go, `Ok, send it. Why not?’”
Leadbetter says Wie is better equipped now for this matchup.
“Michelle knows what a phenomenal athlete Lexi is, and how far she hits it, but she isn’t going to worry about Lexi,” Leadbetter said. “Michelle is playing with so much confidence now. I think they will spur on each other.”
With the fade, and with Wie not going as hard at the ball as she did in her youth, she isn’t as long as she used to be, but she likes the improved control she has now.
“She can bunt that driver around,” Brittany Lincicome said.
Thompson is coming off a strong year, with two victories and six second-place finishes in 2017. She won the Vare Trophy and was the Golf Writers Association of America Player of the Year, but she has had mixed results in this young season. She started strong, tying for sixth at the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic in her first start and tying for second at the Honda LPGA Thailand. But she tied for 31st at the HSBC Women’s World Championship and then tied for 58th in her last start at the Kia Classic last weekend. She’s waiting for a cold putter to heat up.
Wie won the HSBC Women’s World Championship three weeks ago.
“You have two of the biggest drawing cards in women’s golf playing together,” Leadbetter said. “It’s going to be great viewing.”