CARLSBAD, Calif. — She was away from the competitive game for 21 months, but that hardly seemed the reality when Michelle Wie West stepped to the first tee on Thursday to start the LPGA Tour’s Kia Classic. After being introduced as “Mrs. Michelle Wie West” for the first time by an on-course announcer, she fashioned a beautiful draw into the middle of the fairway. She then striped her approach to 15 feet, and even when her putt looked like it would glance the cup, it tipped in on the side for a birdie.
Wie West flashed a bright smile. So much for the challenges of a comeback following marriage and motherhood.
If only golf was that easy. If only the game was that kind.
For the other 17 holes at Aviara Golf Club, which was doused by a rare late March storm of wind and rain, Wie West played exactly like we might expect from a player who only two months ago took up practicing seriously again, sometimes while pushing her 9-month-old daughter Makenna in a stroller down the fairway.
Wie West sliced her drive on the fourth hole out of bounds, pulled a tee shot into the water on the 10th, bogeyed three consecutive holes on the back nine by missing putts inside six feet, and drove into the water on the 18th in starting her return to the LPGA with a nine-over-par 81 that put her 15 shots off the lead of 10-time major winner Inbee Park (66).
“It was tough conditions to come back to,” Wie West said. “No excuses. I’m taking a lot of positives from it. It didn’t seem like it, but I’m excited. I’m grateful to be back out here and have another day to get my game ready for the ANA.”
Wie has entered next week’s ANA Inspiration, the first LPGA major of 2021, where the conditions figure to be more inviting in the California desert.
It was a little bit of everything that was off kilter for Wie West, and predictably so. The 31-year-old with five LPGA titles had not been in competition since June 2019, when she shot two rounds in the 80s in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship while playing with an injured wrist. She thought at the time that she might be done with competing at this level, but was inspired to begin a comeback when Makenna was born last June.
If there was a consolation Thursday, Wie West was from far from alone in her struggles on an unseasonably cold spring day in San Diego. Guaranteed, it was the first time players used hand warmers between shots here. The course conditions didn’t help, with some of the fairways so thin with grass that the LPGA is allowing the field to play lift, clean and place for the entire week.
The rain didn’t arrive until the afternoon, while Wie West’s group played the fifth hole, and some of the worst scores came in the late wave. Nasa Hataoka, the 2019 Kia winner, shot 79, and 2020 U.S. Women’s Open champ A Lim Kim scored 78. Those efforts made the 32-year-old Park look all the better. She played later and made six birdies while suffering no bogeys.
Immediately after the round, Wie West didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the day. Her mother was in the hotel room watching Makenna (her father walked the entire round), and she was anxious to get back to her daughter.
“One hundred percent,” she said when asked if she was a different person before and after having a child. “I would be spending an hour on the putting green [after the round],” she said, laughing “I’ve got to head back and do bath time now. The priorities are different.”
Wie contended that she hit “a lot of great shots,” but “got a couple of unlucky bounces here and there that could have made a big difference.”
Among the misfortune was Wie West’s second-shot approach at the par-5 eighth, which narrowly missed the green, kicked off a bank and dropped into the water. At the difficult par-4 18th, her drive rolled out just enough to trickle into the lake. If anything, Wie can be credited with making some great bogeys saves. She bogeyed both of the aforementioned holes, as well as the par-5 10th, when her pulled drive found the water. Unsure of where to take her penalty drop, Wie West was aided by Golf Channel on-course reporter Karen Stupples, who pointed out a small portion of land between the water hazards. From there, Wie made bogey.
Wie West shot 43 on the back, going six over on holes 10-15, including a double bogey at the 15th when she motored her 18-foot par putt to five feet past the cup, and then missed that roll.
“Just couldn’t get my putter going,” Wie West said. “Just didn’t make a lot of confident strokes out there today, which I know I can improve for [Friday].”