The maturation of Michelle Wie, major champion

PINEHURST, N.C. – Michelle Wie put her table-top putting stance to good use in the late hours after she became a U.S. Women’s Open champion.

In a photo she posted to Instagram, Wie is bent over so sharply that her back is parallel to the ground. Only instead of a hitting a putt – like the 25-footer for birdie on the 17th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 that clinched her first major – her head is buried in the Women’s Open trophy.

A text message to Meg Mallon would seem to confirm what she was doing.

“She said, `It takes 21 1/2 beers to fill up the U.S. Open trophy,” Mallon said Monday.

The maturation of the 24-year-old from Hawaii has been fascinating to watch.

She was a 12-year-old with chubby cheeks and braces who stood behind the 18th green at the Sony Open and talked about her dream of playing the Masters.

Wie played in the final group of an LPGA major when she was in the eighth grade. She had a chance to win three majors when she was 16. She shot a 68 on the PGA Tour to miss the cut by one shot at age 14, which inspired her to compete against the men and invited sharp criticism when she couldn’t even beat the women.

No one moved the needle like Wie in women’s golf.

And perhaps no other female athlete, especially one so young, endured so much condemnation. To her credit – and her parents deserve credit for this, too – she never lashed back at those who questioned the path she chose.

Wie reached the ultimate destination Sunday, even if she never could have imagined how she would get there. Stardom included a detour to two stages of Q-school, just so she could become a part-time player while attending – and eventually graduating – from Stanford.

“This is exactly where I wanted to be,” Wie said on the eve of the final round at Pinehurst. “When I was 15 and 16, I think the troubles that I came into when I was younger is that I tried to plan my life, and a lot of times things don’t happen the way they should – or the way they should in my mind.”

She had a road map at 15?

“Oh, yeah,” she replied, smiling at a room full of reporters. “Don’t you all?”

It would be easy to suggest that Wie arrived as the player everyone thought she could be when the final putt fell for a two-shot victory, just moment before the church bells began ringing at Pinehurst.

She arrived much earlier. She won in Hawaii earlier this year. She was in the last group at a major. She was a contender just about every week.

“This was just the exclamation point,” Mallon said.

Mallon won her fourth major 10 years ago at the U.S. Women’s Open, the same year she first got to know a 6-foot teen from Hawaii who could hit the ball a mile. She saw a prodigy. She also saw a girl.

“I adore the kid,” Mallon said. “We were paired in a pro-am when she was 14 and we had a blast. We were challenging each other with short-game shots and we made a bet. She said, `If I win, I get to put streaks in my hair.’ I went over to Bo (Wie’s mother) and asked if that was OK. She won and put streaks in her hair that afternoon.”

Wie’s game recently was questioned last August when she was a captain’s pick for the Solheim Cup – by Mallon – over a player who had won that year and was ahead of Wie in the standings. Mallon called it a “no-brainer” because she needed someone who could handle the big stage. Few knew it better.

“I was looking at picks about three weeks out and Michelle came up and said, `Gosh, Meg, I know I’m six months away from where I want to be. I am so close.’ And you kind of look now at where she is,” Mallon said.

Wie is leading the LPGA Tour money list, approaching $1.6 million. She had never earned over $1 million in a season. She is No. 7 in the women’s world ranking.

And she figured this out all on her own.

She always had the swing and the power to win a major. Her putting for years was the weakest part of her game. And yet she won the Open by going an entire week without a three-putt, by making a tricky 5-foot putt to salvage double bogey on the 16th hole and keep the lead, and by making one of the hardest putts at Pinehurst at the 17th. It was fast and broke in two directions, and this one slammed into the back of the cup nearly as hard as she slammed her fist when it fell.

Wie created this unique “table-top” style all by herself. She followed Mallon’s advice in the offseason by putting away the video and bringing more feel into her game.

There was no better feeling than holding the trophy – or drinking out of it.

She no longer tries to map out her life as much as she once did, though Wie allowed herself such a moment a week ago Sunday when she walked up the 18th fairway with Martin Kaymer when he won the men’s U.S. Open.

“I thought to myself, `I want to be here on Sunday. I want to feel this exact thing,'” she said. “It’s a dream come true that it actually happened.”