Michelle Wie’s putting style earns praise from Judy Rankin

Michelle Wie may have an unusual putting stroke, but it works for her. The popular Stanford grad is just two shots off the lead at the LPGA’s U.S. season-opening event in Phoenix.

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Michelle Wie took a lot of heat when she put her "tabletop" putting motion into play last year.

Of them all, Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin was one of the harshest critics of Wie's ungainly attempt to get the ball to the hole.

"I’ll be as candid as I can be. I see nothing good about it," Rankin said ahead of the 2013 Kraft Nabisco Championship about Wie’s then new approach that had her bending 90 degrees from the waist. "I don't think, in that position, a person can even clearly or comfortably see their line. I think it completely inhibits any freedom of movement and it cannot possibly help your touch."

At that time, Wie was coming off a second straight missed cut, her third in five events, and her game was a mess. In addition to ranking 144th in accuracy off the tee and to the green (118th), Wie was 91st in scoring average. So Rankin had ammunition to back up her salvos.

Skip ahead 12 months and the two-time LPGA winner entered this week’s kickoff to the tour’s stateside schedule, the JTBC Founders Cup, on the strength of two top-10 finishes in three events so far in 2014. Many of her stats have improved, including her work on the greens, with her putting average dropping from 31.16 (ranked 119th) in 2012 to 30.58 (70th) so far this year, and putts per greens in regulation going from 1.892 (119th) two years ago to 1.810 (60th).

Given such progress, it’s no surprise that Wie’s scoring average -- a gaudy 73.485 (92nd) in 2012 -- has dipped to 70.083 (6th).

Rankin, for one, has noticed the difference and made a point on Thursday of commending the Stanford graduate for sticking with a putting stroke that most definitely is working for her.

"I don’t know if we’ve gotten used to the putting style or if it looks a little more relaxed to me," Rankin said after Wie drained a birdie putt on the 12th hole at Wildfire Golf Club in Phoenix. "It just doesn’t seem as full of tension as it did a year ago when I first saw it."

Rankin’s broadcast partner, Tom Abbott, noted that Wie was unconcerned about looks or naysayers' opinions as long as her method worked.

"A lot of people have talked about my putting stance or whatnot, but I honestly don't care how I look as long as I make putts," Wie said during last year’s Solheim Cup. "I think that you walk up to any professional golfer and you tell them ‑‑ give them a choice between looking cool and making putts, and I'm pretty sure everyone's going to say, 'making putts.'"

On Thursday, Rankin observed, after Wie stalked and missed a mid-length birdie putt on the par-4 16th, that the 24-year-old was not "a blessed green reader." But after Abbott noted that knee-knockers had been a problem area for Wie, Rankin quickly came to her defense.

"Although," said Rankin, before Wie drilled such a shot for a finishing birdie on the par-4 18th, "ever since she adopted this style she has been better with the short putt."

For sure, Wie’s putting was not sensational on Thursday. Despite needing 31 short strokes, however, going a perfect 14-for-14 in fairways hit and 18-for-18 in greens in regulation got her to an opening-round 6-under 66. With a nearly flawless scorecard that boasted five birdies, an eagle on the par-5 fifth, and just one bogey, the 46th-ranked player in the world heads into Friday’s second round in an eight-way tie for third -- just two strokes back of 18-hole leader Mirim Lee.

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