Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie West add legendary touch to memorable week at Pine Needles

The Swedish superstar and the one-time teenage phenom gave the Sandhills a taste of nostalgia

Michelle Wie West waves as she walks off the 18th green following Friday's second round of the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

SOUTHERN PINES — Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie are of different generations and their professional golf careers followed vastly different trajectories. But the two will always share a connection because of the stature they attained in the game, their groundbreaking entries in men’s events and the success they achieved here in North Carolina.

Hall of Famer Sorenstam won the second of her three U.S. Women’s Opens at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Resort in 1996. Wie produced her crowning achievement 18 years later by winning her only Open title a few miles down Midland Road at Pinehurst No. 2.

Annika Sorenstam hits a shot from the fairway of the ninth hole during Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Last week, they returned to the Sandhills to tee it up one more time in a Women’s Open.

Although both players entered the event at Pine Needles with hopes of at least being competitive and making the cut, their participation was realistically just ceremonial.

Neither was still around on Sunday when Australian Minjee Lee putted out on the final hole to win her second major title and the record $1.8 million winner’s prize. The reception each got as they made the walk down the fairway to the 18th green for the final time on Friday, however, rivaled that of the winner in the emotion it produced.

For Wie, who shot rounds of 73 and 74 to miss the cut by two strokes, it was an opportunity to say goodbye. Despite being only 32 years old, she has announced that she plans to step away from competitive golf.

“Yeah, I definitely teared up a little bit knowing that it would be one of my last times doing that,” said Wie, who said it’s time for her clubs “collect some dust.” “I definitely had flashbacks of Pinehurst and just seeing all the same people. It was just really cool to see everyone here again.”

Sorenstam’s presence at Pine Needles was even more nostalgic.

Not only did she win there in the first of four Women’s Opens held at the resort, but her play this year marked a return to the event after a 14-year absence.

It was a “comeback” inspired by her children, whose only experience watching her play in tournaments had been in YouTube videos. She earned her spot in the field by winning the U.S. Senior Women’s Open last year.

It was an opportunity she said she likely would have turned down had the championship been held anywhere other than Pine Needles.

Unlike 1996, when she was laser-focused on winning, she took the time to appreciate her surroundings this time. Between teeing off and lining up putts during her opening round 73 on Thursday, she also spent time imploring her husband and children to hydrate and apply sunscreen, and worrying if her 10-year-old son Will had wandered off into trouble.

“There’s a lot of thoughts going on,” she said. “Then it’s like, OK, trigger, now you’ve got to play, you’ve got to hit a hybrid. That’s just kind of the way it is now.

Former Wake Forest golfer Jennifer Kupcho tees off in front of the gallery on the ninth hole during Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

“Sometimes I get a little distracted. There were a few holes I’m like, where did Will go? Is he OK? Is he climbing some tree somewhere? Then I saw him on 18, so it’s nice.”

Sorenstam’s mood wasn’t quite as chipper as she made her final walk down 18 on Friday.

Two days of laboring in the 90-plus degree heat took its toll on the 51-year-old winner of 72 LPGA events and 10 majors.

Any hopes of sneaking under the cut line of 2-over-par slipped away with a double-bogey seven on the par-5 10th hole. She made five more bogeys coming in while fading to a final round 81 that dampened her mood more than the steady late afternoon rain that was falling.

“It’s like a balloon on No. 10 there. It’s like putting a needle in it and it fizzles away,” Sorenstam said. “I really fought hard on the back even though the results don’t show it. I tried through the end. It just didn’t work.

“Maybe it could have been a little bit more nostalgic in a way, but people being here at whatever time it is, to sit with some raindrops, it shows true support, true fans and I appreciate that.”

She showed that appreciation by sticking around, signing autographs for anyone who wanted one and taking photos with members of the grounds crew before leaving with a wave and a smile.

“I was shooting for par or better and coming in here, I think I said I felt good about everything,” she said. “It was a disappointing final round. Actually, the final nine. But it’s been great to be here. You know what Pine Needles means to me and my family and everybody. We made a lot of different memories in different ways.”

Fans snake down a hill path from the 10th tee box during Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)