Michelle Wie might be ready to break through and win her first major championship this weekend at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
If Wie can’t pull it off, her friend Lexi Thompson – another of the women’s game’s top young players – could win her second.
On a day mixing heat, rain showers and distant thunder often at the same time on No. 2’s sprawling layout, Wie and Thompson emerged Friday as the only players in the field under par after 36 holes.
Wie, 24, shot a 2-under-par 68 Friday and has the second-round lead by three strokes over Thompson, 19, who fired an identical 68.
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Wie wrapped up her round with two birdies. Thompson, who won the Kraft Nabisco Classic – one of the LPGA Tour’s majors – earlier this season by three strokes over Wie, also finished strong with three straight birdies on her back nine.
So as they did on Sunday during the Kraft Nabisco, Wie and the long-hitting Thompson will play in the third-round pairing at the U.S. Women’s Open on Saturday afternoon.
“I really enjoy (Thompson’s) company,” said Wie, who is 4 under for the tournament. “I’ve always tried to be a friend to her, kind of be there for her, because I know what it’s like to be on tour when you’re that young. I try to make her feel comfortable out here.”
Trailing Wie and Thompson (1 under) are three players tied for third at even par – first-round leader Stacy Lewis, amateur Minjee Lee and Amy Wang.
Lewis, the world’s top-ranked player who had a one-stroke lead on Wie after what Lewis called an “easy” round Thursday, struggled Friday. Despite playing in afternoon conditions made softer by occasional rain showers, Lewis could only manage a 3-over 73.
“By no means am I out of this thing,” said Lewis, a two-time major winner. “We’ve got way too much golf to play.”
Among those missing the cut was Lucy Li, 11, the youngest player ever to qualifyfor the U.S. Women’s Open. Li, who said she enjoyed playing in front of the large galleries at Pinehurst, finished 16 over after shooting a 78 Friday.
Wie, perhaps the tour’s most talented player, has had a career that has been mostly about unfulfilled promise, with a dash of sideshow – she played in eight PGA Tour events from 2004-08 – thrown in.
But she has begun to realize that potential this year. A week after finishing second to Thompson in the Kraft Nabisco, Wie won the Lotte Championship in her home state of Hawaii.
It was her first victory since 2010 and the third of her career. Wie said her four-year winless drought didn’t minimize her love for golf, or her drive to keep improving.
“I never lost it,” said Wie, who had just four top-10 finishes in 2013 after a single one in 2012. “I love working on my game. It’s a lot more fun when you work hard. The results show. 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. That’s what’s so fun about it. You can never quite perfect it.”
Rivals like Lewis have noticed.
“I think the way Michelle has played the last six months, you look at her differently,” Lewis said. “She’s become one of the best ball strikers on tour. She’s really consistent and is figuring out how to win.
“It’s great for the tour and women’s golf when she’s playing well. She brings fans in.”
Thompson has four career victories and her Kraft Nabisco triumph solidly marked her as one of the game’s bright young stars.
“(Friday) went very well,” Thompson said. “I stayed in my routine and had fun between shots. I didn’t stress about bad shots. I just went and found it.”
Thompson said she will enjoy the atmosphere that Saturday will bring, as will Wie.
“Playing in the final group of a major, you still get the same nerves,” Wie said. “It’s still very exciting. I’m grateful for every time I’m in the final group because it’s so much fun. I love feeling the nerves. I love every part of it.”