Michelle Wie: What’s holding her back?

OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JUNE 29: Michelle Wie hits her tee shot on the fifth hole during the first round of the 2017 KPMG PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club on June 29, 2017 in Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL - JUNE 29: Michelle Wie hits her tee shot on the fifth hole during the first round of the 2017 KPMG PGA Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club on June 29, 2017 in Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

What’s keeping Michelle Wie from returning to the LPGA champions circle? It’s more than her putting.

Michelle Wie had completed 12 consecutive sub-par rounds when she teed off Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Her streak came to an end with a 2-over 73 that took her from a starting top-10 position to a top-20 finish, trailing leader Danielle Kang by 10 huge shots.

By any measure, it was a disappointing finish for Wie, who made a strong start at the Championship with a 3-under par 68 but then steadily declined in performance..

Let’s look at Wie’s playing stats for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, beginning with her long game.

  • Round 1: Wie hit 86% of the fairways with drives that averaged slightly more than 252 yards.
  • Round 2: Wie hit only 57% of the fairways and her driving distance decreased to 246 yards.
  • Round 3: Wie hit 79% of the fairways with drives that averaged slightly less than 250 yards.
  • Round 4: Wie again his 79% of the fairways with drives that averaged 255 yards, her strongest performance off the tee of the Championship.
  • Tournament average: 75%
  • Danielle Kang’s tournament average: 73%

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While we all recognize golf axiomatic truth – it’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive – we also know that a good start sets up a successful, pressure-free finish to every hole.

Wie’s inconsistency off the tee from one round to the next certainly has an unbalancing effect. Yet she remained competitive with Kang, the newly minted champion, in her performance off the tee.

Wie’s tee-to-green play reveals a glaring inconsistency:

  • Round 1: Wie hit 78% of the greens in regulation. That good start off the tee paid off.
  • Round 2: Predictably, Wie’s GIR declined to 67%. She paid the price of shorter, less consistent tee shots.
  • Round 3: Wie’s GIR was back to 78%, again a predictable result of more accurately directed tee shots.
  • Round 4: Wie held steady at 78% – the most consistent element of her game during the Championship came in her approaches. She was clearly dialed in and on line.
  • Tournament average: 75%
  • Danielle Kang’s tournament average: 82%

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In terms of tee-to-green play, Wie was not only inconsistent. She lagged well behind Kang, and this critical difference put Wie at a disadvantage when she did finally reach the putting surface. While the received wisdom in the game emphasizes the importance of putting, the fact is that she who arrives at the green first will have the advantage. Wie lost opportunities and strokes before he picked up her flatstick.

Finally, let’s look at Wie’s performance on the putting surface, that moment in every hole when even the highest handicapper can shave a stroke or two off her score and that element of Wie’s game that’s received the greatest scrutiny.

  • Round 1: 30 putts
  • Round 2: 29 putts
  • Round 3: 32 putts
  • Round 4: 34 putts
  • Tournament average: 31.25
  • Danielle Kang’s tournament average: 30.25

Here, too, Danielle Kang outplayed Michelle Wie, but not by much, certainly not enough to account for that 10 stroke differential.

Michelle Wie is a tinkerer. She enjoys adapting and changing and tweaking, which is how she found her way to that bizarre tabletop putting stance that sent her plummeting into a long, painful two-year slump. And putting may, as well, be the way she plays her way back into the upper level of the world rankings this year, but Wie must also take steps to strengthen her GIR stat. She start losing shots with her approach shot.

Wie first took her way back from putting purgatory public last February at the Women’s Australian Open. The twitterverse took immediate note!

Despite a fairly low T30 finish, Wie’s new putting style seemed to hold up. She averaged a very respectable 29.75 putts per round. Then came the HSBC Women’s Champions and a stunningly exciting T4 finish where she averaged 30.25 putts per round. What made the difference for Wie in Singapore? Consistent tee-to-green play, not putting.

At the ANA Inspiration, where Wie finished with a solo sixth place, she averaged 26.25 putts per round but tee-to-green play was a bit off.

Skipping forward to her runner-up finish at the Meijer LPGA Classic, Wie was hitting only 62% of the fairways and averaged 30 putts per round, adequate but not outstanding stats. Despite some wild drives and an occasionally uncooperative putter, however, Wie was getting herself out of trouble quickly and hitting 87% of the greens in regulation. The result? A solid runner-up finish. A putt here and a drive there could have put her at the top of the board.

So, despite the recent focus on Wie’s putting and, in particular, her many putting grips, her playing stats suggest to me that it’s not her flatstick that’s blocking her path to victory. Wie’s problem is inconsistency in her tee-to-green play.

Next: Golf Waggles from Ben Hogan to Michelle Wie

Wie is taking next week off. We’ll see her next at the U.S. Women’s Open, July 13-16, at Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, NJ.