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THE FINISH LINE

Wie shifts focus to 'stay healthy, be free, and have fun'

The 28-year-old golf star, struggling with injuries since 2014, adopts a different approach to the game.

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"I've always been an overthinker. We accumulate fear, we accumulate overthinking. Sometimes you have to knock it back down and just kind of be free and have fun." - Michelle Wie

Rancho Mirage, California

AS a carefree 13-year-old, Michelle Wie used the grand stage in Rancho Mirage to declare her intentions to "go play LPGA full-time and then try to go to the PGA".

That was back in 2003, and Wie played grown-up golf between giggling discourses on Oreo cookies and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Now 28, the American star is involved for the 14th time at Mission Hills Country Club in the ANA Inspiration, the women's first major of the year that began on Thursday.

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Her performance now, she said, is fuelled by avocado toast. Her appearance in the tournament has always been marked by boundless public curiosity and burdensome expectations.

But never before has Wie arrived at this point of the season with an LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) victory already in her pocket.

She said her win earlier this month at the HSBC Women's World Championship in Singapore - her fifth overall and her first since the 2014 US Women's Open - had not increased her anticipation of the ANA.

"I look forward to this event every year," she said earlier this week as she prepared to seek her second major championship.

In contrast to her demeanor in recent years, Wie exuded a peaceful, easy feeling during her media availability, punctuating many of her answers with a laughter that called to mind the buoyant teen she was before the game crippled her body and crushed her confidence.

She ultimately played in eight events on the PGA Tour and made the cut in a men's tournament on the Asian Tour.

Wie has not crossed over since 2008, the year before she became a full-fledged member of the LPGA Tour and won her first tournament. By most estimations, that victory was long overdue and her career had been undermined by overreach.

After her big victory in Singapore, Wie conveyed a message to her management team: "The first thing I said to my agents and everyone was just, 'Let's just simmer down on the expectations and the hype and everything.'"

Wie still competes occasionally with men, but only informally and when she is home in Jupiter, Florida.

She practises alongside the likes of Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, whose fearlessness in attacking the course has helped her reconnect with her younger, undaunted self.

"I think a lot on the golf course, I worry about the outcome," Wie said. "The guys, they care, obviously, but they are a lot more aggressive. I've talked to a couple of them, and they said, 'If it goes in the hazard, it goes in the hazard.'"

They approach golf "more like a game", she said.

With her booming drives and towering goals, the teenage Wie attracted a huge following - and a sizable endorsement portfolio after she turned professional, just days before her 16th birthday.

She was projected as the Tiger Woods of women's golf, the transcendent talent who would transform the game, and she struggled under the weight of those expectations.

The joy with which she approached the sport dissipated over time, giving way to a world-weary drudgery.

"I've always been an overthinker," Wie said, adding that as a youngster she "just masked it well". The road to adulthood can be rough for any adolescent, but especially one negotiating the path with the world watching and critiquing every step.

"We accumulate fear, we accumulate overthinking," Wie said. "Sometimes you have to knock it back down and just kind of be free and have fun."

As a child, Wie idolised Woods, who is now her neighbour in Jupiter. Like him, she has come to inhabit a body troubled by overuse injuries, exacerbated by forceful golf swings.

Since 2014, Wie has struggled with finger, hip, ankle, neck and wrist problems.

"Every time we see each other, we list off all the things: How's your ankle, how's your back, how's everything?" Wie said, referring to Woods. "It's a 20-minute conversation, and then we can move on from there."

Wie withdrew from last year's US Women's Open early in her second round because of neck pain. She played in three more tournaments in July and August before taking September off to allow her body time to heal.

When she returned, it was with a new outlook and a new look. Driven by boredom, Wie said with a laugh, she cut her long black hair and became a platinum blonde.

One of Wie's cohorts, Brittany Lincicome, barely recognised her at a tournament this year - because her game had changed quite a bit, too.

"In the past, you would wait until the explosion happened or she would hit it out of play or do something really bad and make a really big number," said Lincicome, who played in a group with Wie.

"But this last time I played with her, every shot was down the middle. She was in play every time."

Wie ranked outside the top 40 in putting on the tour's last year, but is now tied for ninth. In Singapore, she secured victory by sinking a birdie putt of at least 10m on the final hole.

Wie said her injuries, strangely, had helped make her a better putter. To stay healthy, she has scaled back her range sessions.

"I'm trying not to hit golf balls," she said. "I love to grind, so I focus all of my energy on the putting green."

Wie is no longer chasing history. She's in no rush to solidify her legacy. "My main focus is staying healthy," she said, "and we'll just take it on from there." NYTIMES

 

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