Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 6, 2021

A Collapse Of Olympic Proportions

“I feel really good about the direction her game is headed.”  That ill-timed analysis of Lexi Thompson’s golf was offered by an NBC Sports commentator even as Thompson walked off the 18th green of the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco, having squandered a five shot lead over the final ten holes of the Women’s U.S. Open and coming up one stroke short of a playoff.  The back nine at the Lake Course plays to a par of 36, but Thompson required 41 shots to navigate the inward half Sunday, after doing so in 34 strokes on each of the U.S. Open’s first three days. 

Thompson’s troubles, beginning with a double-bogey 6 on the par-4 11th, gave new energy to her pursuers just when they may have been ready to resign themselves to battling for second place.  Playing one group ahead, Japan’s Nasa Hataoka, who had made her own bogey on number 11, rolled in birdie putts on the 13th, 14th and 16th to post a 68 and a four-day total of 4-under par.  Walking alongside Thompson, Yuka Saso of the Philippines began the day just one off the lead but wore a dejected look after back-to-back double-bogeys early in her round.  But her slumped shoulders picked up as the lead narrowed, and she made birdies on the two par-5s on the homeward nine, moving to 4-under as well. 

Yet while the margin had narrowed to just one, Thompson still held the advantage and had a chance to increase it as she surveyed the curling line of a birdie try on the 16th.  But her putt never had a chance since it started at the left edge and the slope was going to move it even further to that side.  Then on the final two holes, Thompson hit two of her worst shots of the week, coming up woefully short with wedges both times.  Forced into up-and-down efforts, she followed those disastrous short shots with two of her worst putts of the tournament.  A weak stab with barely any backswing on 17 curled away short of the hole, and an equally tentative stroke at the last limped to a stop well short of the cup.  That sad putt effectively ended Thompson’s tournament, sending Saso and Hatoaka to a playoff eventually won by the 19-year-old Saso on the third extra hole. 

Because she came to the attention of golf fans at such a young age, it’s easy to forget that Thompson is only 26.  Of the six Americans currently in the top-20 of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, only Nelly Korda is younger at 22.  Thompson, currently ranked 9th, turned pro at the age of 15, and cashed her first professional check with a 10th place finish at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont Country Club. 

That was the Open won by Paula Creamer, who turned in a courageous effort over the famed and brutal layout while still rehabbing from surgery on her right hand.  In the decade since, only two other Americans have triumphed at our national championship – Michelle Wie at Pinehurst in 2014 and Brittany Lang at CordeValle Golf Club five years ago.  Golf is an international sport, and aside from the various team competitions – the Solheim, Presidents, and Ryder Cups – when patriotic fervor and a fair amount of rank jingoism runs rampant, American fans have long since grown accustomed to rooting for players from other countries on both the men’s and women’s tours.  Still, the sturdy efforts of the LPGA to expand its footprint and grow the game for women in this country would certainly be helped by the occasional major victory by an American woman.  But the recent history of the U.S. Open has been replicated in the other women’s majors.  Since Lang’s 2016 U.S. Open victory, only two Americans have lifted the trophy out of twenty-three majors played, and none in the past eleven events.

The drought was supposed to end Sunday.  As the final groups approached the turn at Olympic, such a result seemed all but certain.  In the aftermath of Thompson’s collapse, some will surely point to the venue.  While this was the first women’s major played on the shores of Lake Merced, Olympic has hosted the men’s U.S. Open five times, and that history is rich with favorites coming undone over the layout’s fairways.  Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson all held 54-hole leads at Olympic, but the names of Jack Fleck, Billy Casper, and Scott Simpson are engraved next to that year on the U.S. Open trophy.  But neither those results nor this one were wrought by wood nymphs hiding in the boughs of the towering trees lining Olympic’s fairways.  For all the support teams, finely tuned equipment, and sage advice of an experienced caddie, in the end golf is a brutally individual sport.  Only the player swings the club.

With 11 LPGA victories, including a major win at the 2014 ANA Inspiration, Thompson is a superstar of the women’s game.  Her popularity, whether measured by the size of her pre-COVID galleries or her half-million followers on both Instagram and Twitter, is enormous.  She also understands the importance of the LPGA’s outreach efforts, taking time to sign autographs for kids at Olympic after what was surely a heartbreaking result. 

Thompson burst into the consciousness of golf fans as a young teenager who hit prodigious drives.  She remains one of the LPGA’s longest hitters, ranking 5th in driving distance in 2019, the Tour’s last full season.  But she is a terrible putter, ranking 135th in putting average that year, and only slightly better in that stat so far this season.  And any number of analysts have said that her wedge play would improve if she shallowed her swing on short shots to increase distance control and reduce mishits. 

Sunday, under the unique pressure of playing with the lead in the final round of a major, those weaknesses emerged, when only she could swing the club.  The result was heartbreak, for Lexi Thompson and many, many fans.  She has plenty of time to improve those aspects of her game, but whether she does, or not, may well determine whether years from now Thompson’s career is celebrated with awe, or recalled with a sigh, and whispered regret for what might have been.

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