PEBBLE BEACH — When Michelle Wie West arrived at the 18th tee Friday in the 2nd round of the Women’s U.S. Open, there was a hint of sadness hanging in the air. No one wanted to talk about it, most of all Wie West, but it was obvious. A career that once contained so much promise was on the cusp of ending, and very little about the scene felt worthy of an icon.

The weather was dreary, the crowd that remained in the fading daylight was noticeably sparse, and Wie West was miles off the cutline. She needed a par just to break 80.

Twenty years ago — when it seemed like she might do for women’s golf what Tiger Woods did for the men’s game — it would have been impossible to imagine a curtain call so somber. Wie West’s journey during the last two decades probably ought to serve as a reminder that hype is a beast that is impossible to control, and while predictions may seem harmless, they can also feel unintentionally cruel, particularly if they become the framing for someone’s real life.

Wie West didn’t become the golfer we thought and hoped she would. That is an opinion that any credible person would also regard as a statement of fact.

But there is another side to the Michelle Wie West story, and in the midst of her wistful exit, may it serve as a hopeful counterweight.

America has a habit of picking apart our child prodigies, of breaking their spirit and then leaving them to fend for themselves once their talent begins to erode. We do not extend much grace to the athletes who disappoint us, especially after they tease us with possibility.

The machine, however, did not break Wie West. Though she did not become an all-time great, finishing her career with only five wins (one of them a major), she leaves the game with the reputation as one of its best people. We watched her grow up, watched her evolve from a precocious teenager into a thoughtful, warm, open-hearted woman. Along the way, she picked up a Stanford degree and started her own family.

That she secured a happy ending in her personal life feels like a bit of an upset considering the glare she grew up in after she thrust herself into the spotlight by qualifying for an LPGA event in 2002, at the improbable age of 12. Her swing was so graceful, her tempo so enviable, it felt like a seismic moment in the women’s game. Nike signed her to a $20 million marketing deal when she was 15, three years before she was even eligible to join the LPGA Tour. Although there were trophies and triumphs along the way — none sweeter than her U.S. Women’s Open win at Pinehurst in 2014 — what also came to pass were injuries and swing changes, disappointment and doubt, gossip, controversy and criticism.

Yet there was always something magnetic about her that commanded the attention of millions, even to the end. If you were one of the millions of girls who fell in love with golf in the early 2000s, there is a good chance you dreamed, however briefly, of bombing the ball off the tee like Wie West did in her prime. There were hundreds of those women lining the fairways at Pebble this week, women now in their 30s just like Wie West, juggling jobs and families and finances.

When Wie West smashed one final drive down the middle of the 18th fairway and began the last hole of her competitive career, you could see a few grateful tears welling up. Not just in her eyes, but in the eyes of people lining the hole.

“I hope that I’ve inspired girls to go out there and make fearless decisions,” Wie West said.

As Wie West sized up her second shot, her parents (B.J. and Bo) looked on from just inside the rope line. They had Wie West’s daughter, Makenna, tucked in a stroller along for the celebration, but the 3-year-old was fast asleep. B.J., once cast as a domineering and controlling presence in his daughter’s life, could not stop grinning. He was so happy for her, he said, because of the contentment she’d found in her life.

“What a beautiful place for this to come to an end,” he said, looking out across the water.

It had not been a spectacular round for Wie West, nothing like the way she played when she shot 68 in the second round of the Sony Open in 2004 at age 14, the moment it seemed like anything (even a Masters appearance, via a possible US Public Links title!) was possible for her. But posting a great score wasn’t really the point. Wie West wanted to experience one last competitive golf memory and share it with her husband, Jonnie West, the Golden State Warriors Director of Basketball Operations.

“Honestly, the thing that stands out the most for me was having my husband on the bag,” Wie West said. “He's my partner in life, and to have him walk down 18 with me this week, to have him there by my side the whole week just meant everything to me.”

Wie West lofted her second shot up over the big Cypress tree that splits the middle of the 18 fairway, then came up well short with her third swing, the ball splashing violently in the front bunker. An up-and-down seemed unlikely, particularly on a day when Wie West hadn’t made a putt longer than two feet. The best she could do from a mediocre lie was to blast out to 33 feet from the hole. It looked like her career would end with another middling bogey and some polite applause.

But then something exquisite happened. Wie West sent her par putt trickling toward the hole, and for a second, the whole course was quiet. It drifted right, then on its last rotation, it tumbled into the cup. Wie and her husband erupted in laughter. For someone who struggled with putting her entire career, who said early in the week she looked forward to never doing another putting drill, it was the rare instance of where golf offers up a merciful gift to someone it had long tormented.

“The game is a funny game,” Wie West said. “Making that long putt on 18 definitely was a sweeter sendoff. It just was such an emotional day starting from 1 tee. I've definitely held back tears the entire round. It was fun. It was great to have my last round here at Pebble Beach. It definitely feels surreal right now.”

As she walked off the 18th green to sign her scorecard, Wie West was greeted by USGA president Mike Whan, who handed her a bouquet of flowers. Her family, including her suddenly-awake daughter, wrapped their arms around her. In the midst of the maelstrom of people, her husband Jonnie, was noticeably glowing with pride.

“I think golf will still mean the same [to her], but obviously what she’s doing in golf will be a lot different,” West said. “I’ve heard her talk a lot lately about having a responsibility to the game, like how the [LPGA’s] 13 founders did, of growing the game of golf, especially for women. I think it’s also going to be beyond that, not just golf. She wants to try and bring equity and equality into the game. It’s not just something she’s doing for notoriety. She wants future generations to be in a better place than she is.”

There was a time in Wie West’s 20s when, to escape the pressures of golf, she began to dabble in abstract painting. She showed a real talent for it and was told she could probably sell some of her work, but she wasn’t interested. Nourishing her creative side was rewarding enough. But it helped her develop an eye for certain things, and when Nike talked to her about designing an outfit for her final tournament, she tapped into that part of her brain and came back with an idea. She wanted to turn the iconic Nike Swoosh into an ocean wave, to represent movement and time. Nike loved the idea and used the image on shoes, sweatshirts and hats they made for her family to wear.

“The movement of the water has always inspired me,” Wie West said late Friday, as the sun was setting behind her. “With a wave, everything comes and goes.”

Not every wave crashes when it reaches the end of its journey. Some of the most fascinating ones crest early and end peacefully. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t beautiful to witness.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up

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