You could see the head tilts and darting glances when people peered around Pebble Beach’s Gallery Cafe, or as visitors sat on the patio that looks toward the cypress-guarded 18th green by Stillwater Cove. They surfaced at a luncheon with Brandi Chastain and Kristi Yamaguchi, and during a climb up a flight of stairs, and a stroll through a lobby.
That’s Michelle Wie West, that 6-foot fixture of collective memory and modern golf history.
She did not win as much as she wanted to, and certainly not as much as many people thought she would or should have. But after close to a quarter of a century in the spotlight, she is still one of the savviest stars women’s golf has ever had, a player plenty of people outside of golf know as a star even if they do not know golf.
The competitive golf part of Wie’s life will most likely be done by dusk on Sunday, when the U.S. Women’s Open is scheduled to finish at Pebble Beach. If things don’t go well, and they might not since Wie West’s husband will be her caddie for the first time and she has barely played lately, it could be over by dusk on Friday. After the Open, she has no plans to return to elite competition, though she dodges the word “retirement” in public (and confesses to sometimes using it in private).
She is 33.
That went fast, didn’t it?
In 2000, when she was 10 and Bill Clinton was president, she played the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. She won the event when she was 13, the same age she made an L.P.G.A. tournament cut and had a turn in third place on a major tournament’s weekend leaderboard. She played a PGA Tour event at 14, turned professional at 15, rattled off three top-five finishes in her first three majors as a pro, battled wrist trouble, won the Open at 24 and then spent years with more injuries, cuts and withdrawals than strong showings.
So it was not that fast, after all. Soon, though, it will apparently be finished. Barring a victory this weekend or a surprise in the years ahead, Wie West will finish with five L.P.G.A. Tour wins, including the 2014 Open at Pinehurst, tied for 69th on the career victory list. It adds up to a far better career than most players, though short of the mighty expectations that followed Wie West from the start and flowed from a blend of internet-age youth, talent, celebrity and marketability. (By way of comparison, Inbee Park, a 34-year-old player from South Korea, has won seven majors but has long drawn a fraction of the public attention that Wie West commanded.)
“What’s the right word for this?” Wie West said in an interview in a sun-splashed lounge, well out of earshot of any aides.
“I feel very — confident that I had the career that I wanted to,” she continued eventually. “Obviously, I wish I could have done more as well. I think anyone and everyone thinks that.”
But, she said, “the what-ifs and the regrets and the ‘I wish I could have done this better’ can drive you truly insane.”
Even last year’s announcement of a transition, to use her publicly preferred term, got derailed when her husband came down with Covid-19 and Wie West’s parents stayed back to help with child care. Ready to detail the wind-down she had rolled out on Instagram the previous week, Wie West wound up nearly alone at the 2022 Open in North Carolina.
She had been mulling for years whether it was time to stop playing, frustrated by injuries and, more recently, torn by the notion of her family of three having only so much time together. In 2021, vulgar comments about Wie West by Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York City, jolted her into a fresh sense of purpose.
But there eventually came a point, she said, when she realized the game’s toll was ultimately too high, when she feared her body would be so broken down she would not even be able to play a round for pleasure with her daughter. Her clubs have been in her bag almost exclusively ever since.
“It’s hard,” she said, “it’s hard to know when the right time is to walk away.”
That is assuredly in part because, for an athlete in any sport, stepping back from competition means the statistics are done and that the résumé is, with few exceptions, frozen. For Wie West, retiring or transitioning or whatever you want to call it meant firing up the inevitable debate about whether she had been a squandered or overhyped talent.
She hears it, of course. She also gets it.
“People love to chirp and have their own feeling and whatnot, and they totally have the right to it: They have been invested in my career,” she said. “I know I haven’t won as many as I, quote-unquote, should have.”
At the same time, she seems to wonder how fair it is. She earned a degree from Stanford and won a U.S. Open, and those two feats, she figures, are what she wanted to do anyway.
And yet she can still run through all of the ways her career could have been different: if she had held onto a share of the lead at the 2005 Open at Cherry Hills, if her quest that year to earn a spot in the Masters had worked out, if she had made the cut at her first PGA Tour event instead of missing it by a stroke.
She is entering this week’s 156-woman Open with measured expectations against a deep field.
The reigning champion, Minjee Lee, has won two majors since 2021 and is not ranked in the top-five in the world. And there is Rose Zhang, the 20-year-old Stanford student who last month won her debut tournament as a professional. Wie West’s group, which will tee off at 8:28 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, includes the three-time major winner In Gee Chun and Annika Sorenstam, who logged 10 major victories in her career and received a special exemption into this week’s field.
This spring, Wie West was musing about how she needed to get her stamina up for the rigors of a major, how she needed to hone her iron and wedge play before returning to one of golf’s biggest stages, especially since it will be played this year on one of the sport’s most beloved courses.
“Just have to believe in myself, just get to a point where I feel confident that I can execute the shots and make the putts,” she said. “And I’m hoping that it all comes very quickly.”
She plans to remain closely connected to the sport — she recently hosted the L.P.G.A. tournament that Zhang won — but insisted that she does not think much about how she transformed perceptions of the game that she said still enchants her.
Even now, she said, she will play with her husband and become persuaded that, like every other golfer who has won, lost or never actually contested a major, she has unlocked the sport’s mysteries.
“You get that one feeling and it feels really good, and you’re like, ‘I think I’ve figured out the game. I’ve figured it out!” she said. “I still catch myself saying that almost every time I play, so I know there’s an itch to want to get better.”
Soon enough, after all of this time, it will be happening away from the spotlight.