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Great Leap Forward

Sparked by surprisingly spirited captain's pick Michelle Wie, a young and feisty U.S. team used a familiar game plan—step on their necks in singles—to swamp the Europeans and win a pulsating Solheim Cup

Michelle Wie'sgolf game has always been built on her sublime physical gifts and an obsessionwith technical precision, but during her roller-coaster career one keyingredient has been mostly missing: passion. She has often seemed to approachtournaments like a joyless middle manager running through a to-do list, heryouthful spunk stolen by crushing amounts of hype, money and unfulfilledexpectations. But everything changed for Wie at last week's Solheim Cup, playedat Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.

The U.S. teamretained the Cup with a surge in Sunday singles that was entirely predictablegiven that the Americans had used the same formula to take the previous twoCups. Wie was the real revelation. The 19-year-old rookie, six years removedfrom her last victory of any kind, made the U.S. team only because of BethDaniel's leap of faith with a captain's pick, but Wie stole the show as thebest player and biggest cheerleader on a young team searching for an identity.Her 3-0-1 record was the sparkliest of this Cup, but more surprising than thepoints Wie earned was her fist-pumping, foot-stomping, thigh-slapping fervor. Aself-described "hermit" who has rarely revealed herself, Wie developeda goofy, giggly chemistry with her teammates and felt so at ease in her newsurroundings that her traditionally grim game face was replaced by a radiantsmile.

"It's beenstunning to see the change in her," said Cristie Kerr, who went 2-1-1 inher fifth Solheim Cup. "It's as if she's grown up right before oureyes."

Wie's blossomingwas not accidental, as her teammates went out of their way to bring her out ofher shell, sometimes through old-fashioned hazing. "Angela Stanford was onMichelle Wie the first day we practiced," said Daniel. "She's diggingat her, and Michelle's going right back, toe-to-toe. And Michelle is like, 'Whyare you picking on me?' Angela said, 'Because you have to be tough for thisevent. I'm going to make you tough.'"

In the Solheim'sopening session, the Friday-morning four-ball, Wie made four birdies in thefirst 16 holes to carry partner Morgan Pressel, but a sloppy finish allowedCatriona Matthew and Maria Hjorth to steal a halve. For a lesson on how toclose, Wie needed to look no further than teammates Kerr and Paula Creamer andtheir match versus the powerhouse team of Suzann Pettersen and SophieGustafson. Creamer dropped a 45-foot bomb on the 16th hole to put the U.S. 1up, and then Kerr slammed the door with birdies on the final two holes.Creamer, 23, also starred in the key match of the afternoon foursomes, making a20-footer on the 17th hole to close out Matthew and Janice Moodie. The victorymade Creamer's partner, 49-year-old Juli Inkster, the alltime U.S. pointsleader (with 18) and staked the Americans to a 4½--3½ first-day lead.

Creamer, like allthe Americans, professed to being inspired by Inkster, who had left most of herteammates in tears with a heartfelt pep talk on the eve of what she said wouldbe her final Cup as a player. Said Stanford, "We want to win this for ourcountry and our captain, but we also want to win for Juli."

Saturday was whenWie took over the Cup. She was sent out in the first morning four-ball matchalongside the irrepressible Christina Kim, 25, who spent the match jawing atWie and shamelessly playing to the crowd while intermittently producing clutchshots. Wie was sensational in making five birdies in the first 11 holes duringa commanding 5-and-4 victory over Helen Alfredsson and Tania Elosegui, and sheand Kim celebrated on the 14th green with a series of elaborate handshakes andzany dance steps that were punctuated by Wie's giving her partner a light spankon the booty to the cheers of thousands of mildly mystified fans. AfterwardKim's voice was nearly shot, while a giddy Wie said, "This is the most funI've ever had playing golf. I'm still shaking from the round."

Europe squared theSolheim Cup by taking the final two four-ball matches on the 18th hole, the keyblow being Anna Nordqvist's 20-footer for birdie. The momentum carried over toafternoon foursomes as Europe won two of the first three matches to claim itsfirst lead of the week. Wie and Kerr were the last Yanks standing, in a tussleagainst Hjorth and Nordqvist. Wie seemed to thrive on the pressure, hitting itstiff on 10 and 11 to stake the U.S. to a 2-up lead and then making a key3½-footer on 12 to preserve the margin.

The inability toconsistently hole clutch putts has long been the only bugaboo in Wie's game,and she knows it. The week before the Solheim she rang up Dave Stockton, theChampions tour putting oracle. Across a pair of four-hour lessons, Stocktonstudied Wie's mechanical action and diagnosed that she was aiming to the rightand then pulling her putts with an overactive right hand. Stockton revampedWie's alignment and ball position and persuaded her to shorten her preputtroutine, but mostly they focused on improving her feel by treating putting asmore art than science. Says Stockton, "I told her, When putting becomes thestrongest part of your game, can you imagine how much fun you're going tohave?"

In the crucialSaturday-afternoon foursomes match, a wild sequence at 17 left Wie with afive-footer to halve the hole. She drilled it, letting loose a flurry of fistpumps and sending the drama to the 18th hole.

In the greatdebate about Tiger Woods's potty mouth, his apologists always point out thathis profanity is merely a reflection of how much he cares. If that's themetric, then the U.S. team really, really wanted to win Saturday's final match.After Wie singed the edge of the cup with a 20-foot birdie try on 18 she had analmost feral look in her eye, and stalking off the green she growled an f wordloud enough to produce a few titters among her teammates. "That's whatshe's learned hanging around these crazy girls," said assistant captainKelly Robbins. When Hjorth missed a six-footer for birdie in the gloaming togive the Americans the victory and deadlock the Cup at eight points apiece,Pressel bellowed, "It's about f---ing time we win one of these matches on18!"

Inkster, theacting den mother, broke off an interview to admonish her teammates: "Hey,guys, easy on the f bombs!"

When the singlesbegan the next morning, the Americans' language was a tad more restrained, butnot their play. Creamer set the tone from the leadoff spot with a 3-and-2thumping of Pettersen, the world No. 6 who wore the goat horns after going1--4. (Creamer now has a gaudy 8-2-4 record, including 3--0 in singles.) Wiewas out third against one of Europe's best and most experiencedplayers—Alfredsson, 44, the Euros' Solheim captain two years ago. In the mostelectric sequence of the week, Alfredsson pured her second shot on the par-52[superscript nd] hole to within four feet; then, from 213 yards out, Wieresponded by knocking it inside her opponent's ball, what she later called"the best shot of my life, ever." When Alfredsson yipped her putt,Wie's eagle won the hole. The back-and-forth match was all square arriving atthe tee of the 15th hole, a watery par-5. With Alfredsson in the trees off thetee, Wie showed her new killer instinct, launching a 305-yard bomb that set upthe easy birdie that propelled her back into the lead. Still 1 up on the tee ofthe par-5 18th, Wie smashed another perfect drive and then chased after it likea cocky home run hitter. A laser to the middle of the green assured her of abirdie and the victory. "I played with as much passion as I could, as muchdesire and hunger as I wanted to," she said.

The remainingEuropeans fought hard but were undone by a breathtaking series of Americanrallies on the back nine. In match four Europe's aging stalwart Laura Daviesblew up on the last two holes to hand a half point to Brittany Lang, 24, whohad an undefeated debut at 1-0-2. In the fifth match Inkster was 2 down on the14th tee, but the Hall of Famer simply refused to lose, going on a birdie bingeto pull out a hard-fought halve with Gwladys Nocera. In match nine Kim was allsquare on the 11th tee but won two of the next four holes, versus Elosegui,giving Kim a rousing 3--1 week. The 21-year-old Pressel clinched the Cup bydowning Nordqvist to finish off a 2-0-1 showing.

Even after theoutcome was determined, the final two matches played on, and members of theEuropean team gathered on the edge of the green to forlornly watch the finish."Anyone got a fag?" asked one of the caddies, and a pack of WinstonLights was passed around for a final smoke before the players were to face thefiring squad, in this case the European press.

Finally the 11thSolheim Cup was in the books, 16--12 to the U.S., and the Americans were freeto really whoop it up, beginning with some funky dance moves on the edge of the18th green. Watching her daughter drop it way down low, Dianna Kim said, "Ihave no idea where Christina learned to dance like that." Then, en masse,the young Americans began running laps around the green, waving the Stars andStripes to the delight of the massive galleries. Leading the charge, a hugegrin on her face, was Michelle Wie.

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"We want to win this for our country and ourcaptain," Stanford said, "but we also want to win for Juli."

Sports Illustrated


Photograph by DARREN CARROLL

OUT OF HER SHELL Said Wie, who took down the dangerous Alfredsson in singles to go 3-0-1 for the week, "This is the most fun I've ever had playing golf."


Photograph by DARREN CARROLL

KNEE HIGHS Inkster (left) inspired Creamer and the young Americans.