I think she's become one of the best ball-strikers on tour. She hits it really consistent. She knows where the ball's going. And she's figuring out how to win. That's the big thing. —Stacy Lewis, on Michelle Wie
PINEHURST, N.C. — Michelle Wie is becoming a regular contender in major championships, only now as an adult.
She captivated women's golf as a teenager, contending in three straight LPGA Tour majors when she was 16. That was when she still was trying to compete against the men, when she didn't always look as if she was having fun and before injuries and criticism were a big part of her growing pains.
On another tough day at Pinehurst No. 2, the 24-year-old from Hawaii held it together Friday with two key par putts and finished with back-to-back birdies for a 2-under 68, giving her a three-shot lead going into the weekend at the U.S. Women's Open.
"I think you look at the way Michelle has played the last six months and you look at her differently," said Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 player in women's golf who was four shots out of the lead. "I think she's become one of the best ball-strikers on tour. She hits it really consistent. She knows where the ball's going. And she's figuring out how to win. That's the big thing."
But there's a familiar name, and another teen prodigy, who joined Wie as the only players still under par.
Lexi Thompson, who soundly beat Wie in the final round to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship for her first major title, powered her way out of the sand and weeds, running off three straight birdies to match Wie's 68, the low score Friday.
For all the interest in the men and women playing Pinehurst No. 2 in successive weeks, Wie and Thompson made the Women's Open more closely resemble the first LPGA major. Is it too early to start thinking rematch?
"Definitely too early," Thompson said with a laugh. "Thirty-six holes in a major, that's a lot of golf to be played, especially at a U.S. Women's Open."
For now, Wie had control. Her three-shot lead is the largest through 36 holes in the Women's Open in 11 years.
She twice thought her shots were going off the turtleback greens, and twice she relied on her table-top putting stance to make long par saves. She finished with a 6-iron that set up a 12-foot birdie putt, and a 15-foot birdie on the par-5 ninth to reach 4-under 136.
"End of the day yesterday, I was thinking if I just did this again, that would be nice," Wie said. "Finishing with two birdies is always great. It's a grind out there. It's not easy. Really grateful for the par putts that I made and some of the birdie putts that I made. I can't complain. I'll take it."
Just when it looked as if this had the trappings of another runaway — Martin Kaymer led by at least four shots over the final 48 holes to win the U.S. Open — along came Thompson with a shot reminiscent of what Kaymer did last week.
From the sand and bushes left of the fairway on the par-5 fifth hole, Thompson blasted a 5-iron from 195 yards just off the green, setting up two putts for birdie from about 60 feet. Kaymer was in roughly the same spot in the third round when he hit 7-iron from 202 yards to 5 feet, that pin position more toward the front.
That was her third straight birdie, and she closed with four pars to reach 139.
Pinehurst No. 2 wasn't in much of a giving mood on another warm day in the North Carolina sandhills, with a brief shower in the middle of the afternoon that didn't do much to soften a dry, crusty golf course.
Lewis, who opened with a bogey-free 67, picked up a bogey on her first hole in a wild round of six bogeys, three birdies and a tough 73. Even so, the two-time major champion managed to see the big picture.
"I hung around, and that's what you've got to do at this tournament," said Lewis, at even-par with Amy Yang (69) and Minjee Lee, the 18-year-old amateur from Australia who played bogey-free on the back nine to salvage a 71.
Lucy Li, the precocious 11-year-old and youngest qualifier in the history of the U.S. Women's Open, isn't leaving town until Monday. She just won't be playing any more golf. The sixth-grader from the Bay Area started with a double bogey for the second straight day and shot another 78 to miss the cut by seven shots.
The cut was 9-over 149.
Na Yeon Choi had a 70 and was at 1-over 141, followed by a Paula Creamer (72) at 2-over 142. The group at 143 included Karrie Webb (73) and So Yeon Ryu (74), who saved her hopes with three straight birdies on the front nine, and narrowly missing a fourth. All of them are former Women's Open champions.
This is a different Wie they are chasing. She already has won this year in Hawaii, and she has eight top 10s and is No. 2 on the LPGA money list.
Attribute that to a putting stroke that she owns, no matter how peculiar it looks with her back bent severely, almost parallel to the ground. And she has learned to play the shot — she has a full allotment — instead of worrying about her score or her position on the leaderboard.
"I knew I could get better," Wie said. "I knew I could improve. But that's the game of golf. I think that's what's so fun about it. You work hard, you work hard, it's a challenging game. You can never quite perfect it. I love working on my game. I love working on different shots. Just trying to get better every day. I never really lost a sense of determination or drive."