Michelle Wie West will take extended leave after U.S. Women’s Open

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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Michelle Wie West was grabbing a quick bite at the players’ dining area at Pine Needles golf club, site of this week’s U.S. Women’s Open, when someone the golf trailblazer had not met approached with a message: She was named after her.

Recounting the exchange during a news conference before a practice round this week, Wie West, 32, made light of the reality: She has been in the spotlight long enough that children have been named in her honor.

“So I’m at that phase in my life, which feels great,” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

The 2014 U.S. Women’s Open champion at Pinehurst, which sits less than five miles from where the field of 156 tees off in Thursday’s first round of the most prestigious event in women’s golf, has been soaking in the atmosphere a bit more than usual over the past few days, even if that includes playful jabs at her longevity.

The levity and moments of introspection stem from Wie West’s recent announcement that she will be taking an indefinite leave from playing competitively following the U.S. Women’s Open. She instead will devote more time to advocating for representation and inclusion in the women’s game and more equitable treatment of its athletes.

“I think she’s one of those players that everybody looks to, those young people look to when they make that last putt,” said John Bodenhamer, the U.S. Golf Association’s chief champions officer. “They’re seeing Michelle Wie win the U.S. Women’s Open a few years ago, watching her play, her athleticism, and I think the diversity part of it just increases the inspiration. It’s where the game is going.”

The initiatives Wie West is in the process of managing include a partnership with equipment manufacturer LA Golf designed to provide female players with benefits in line with their male counterparts, most notably full health care with mental health days. Additional plans include paid maternity leave, performance bonuses and concierge services to reduce the stress of constant travel.

For most of her career, Wie West has had the luxury of traveling with a team that handled the details while she’s on the road. But many players don’t have the endorsement deals and/or resources that allow for such accommodations.

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The USGA has addressed some of those issues by, for instance, reimbursing travel expenses for all amateurs at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. It also is providing $8,000 to each professional who fails to make the cut at Pine Needles.

“Huge kudos to the USGA for really buying into the women’s sport and the LPGA for just growing and keeping pushing the boundaries,” Wie West said. “When doors get closed on us, we just keep pushing, and I’m just so proud of everyone on tour and the USGA for really buying in and setting the level right.”

Wie West’s association with the USGA goes back decades, with her first major highlight coming when, at 13, she finished first at the Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship to become the youngest winner in an adult tournament in USGA history. One year earlier, she became the youngest to qualify for an LPGA Tour event, the Takefuji Classic.

She achieved prominence at 14 by competing against male golfers at the Sony Open in Hawaii, a PGA Tour event, where she missed the cut by one stroke. After turning professional in 2005, she made seven more PGA Tour starts through 2008.

“I’m very proud of myself,” Wie West said. “I’ve always wished I would have done more, but I feel like everyone kind of feels that way, so I’m definitely giving myself some grace and enjoying this last week.”

Injuries have altered Wie West’s playing schedule significantly in recent years, and she took 2020 off for the birth of her daughter, Makenna. (Her husband, Jonnie West, is the director of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors.) At the 2019 Women’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine following a nine-month break, Wie West shot an opening-round 84 and broke down in tears while addressing reporters. She then proceeded to take off the rest of the year.

Still one of Wie West’s most enduring legacies as she embarks on an extended hiatus is having contributed to expanding the profile of women’s golf to the point that the total purse at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open is a record $10 million, up $4.5 million from last year at Olympic Club in San Francisco, with $1.8 million going to the winner.

“Michelle has done some amazing things for the women’s game,” said sixth-ranked Lexi Thompson, who at age 12 became the youngest to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open. “Just the things that she does off the golf course, branding-wise for herself as well, it’s inspiring. I’m happy for her. She has a family now, and I think she realizes that, like I am, there’s more important things to life than just golf.”

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