Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2022

Another Women’s Major, Another Lexi Implosion

Plenty of positive tales came out of last weekend’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the kind of stories one would expect to emerge from the third major tournament on the women’s golf calendar.  As already noted in this space, even before the event began the big news was the doubling of its purse, from $4.5 to $9 million.  Coupled with similarly dramatic increases in the prize money at the other women’s majors, the news was tangible proof of the hale health of the women’s tour.

Then there was the wire-to-wire victory by In Gee Chun, a performance that marked a comeback from years of physical and emotional turmoil for the 27-year-old Korean.  Chun won the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2016 Evian Championship early in her career, the latter coming just five weeks after her 22nd birthday.  Those major wins, along with ten victories in Korea and two more in Japan, catapulted her to third in the world rankings by the end of 2016.

Chun’s game then spiraled downward as she struggled with a back injury and serious depression.  In the nearly six years since that second major triumph in France, Chun had recorded just one win, in 2018.  Still fighting the loneliness of a golf tour that takes her very far from home, Chun arrived at Congressional Country Club at least in a better place physically and with her play trending in the right direction, though her name was hardly on anyone’s list of pre-tournament favorites. 

Her chances improved dramatically after she opened with an exquisite 8-under par 64.  The bravura round included a stretch of seven birdies in eight holes, moved Chun five shots clear of the field, and left her fellow competitors wondering if she had been playing a different course than the long and arduous rain-soaked track they had slogged around.  Then she nudged her lead one shot higher with a 69 on Friday to enter the weekend six ahead of Lydia Ko and Jennifer Kupcho.

But as Congressional dried out and the greens turned rock hard, Chun joined the field in struggling over the PGA’s final two rounds.  A 3-over 75 Saturday cut her lead in half, and a rough start to Sunday’s final round caused the rest of her advantage to quickly evaporate.  A front nine score of 40 might have presaged a total collapse after her dominant first two days.  Instead, Chun steadied herself and played the final nine holes in 1-under par, buoyed by a birdie at the 16th and a five-foot par saving putt at the last.  Although her card showed a second straight 75, it was good enough for a one shot win over a pair of pursuers and a long overdue return to the winner’s circle for In Gee Chun.

It was also a good week for the host club’s Blue Course, which looked very different than when fans last saw it.  Both as the occasional site of a weekly PGA Tour stop through 2016 and the venue for Rory McIlroy’s domination of the 2011 men’s U.S. Open, as well as for three earlier men’s majors, the Blue Course was a tree-lined parkland routing.  It was a tough if not especially memorable or visually arresting test.  But as part of a 2018 agreement with the PGA of America to host multiple championships over the succeeding two decades, the club committed to a major renovation of its signature layout.  That project reconfigured several holes, most notably the par-3 10th, but its most striking element was the removal of thousands of trees, opening up the course as it had never been before.   A round on the Blue Course once meant playing through narrow corridors of trees, especially on the back nine.  Now the club’s massive Spanish Revival clubhouse is visible from virtually every hole.

Still, despite the positive stories of increased prize money, a winner on the comeback trail, and a venerable golf course made new again, much of the focus since Sunday has been on a darker tale.  Such is the nature of reporting.  After all, Amtrak trains make more than 33,000 trips over more than 21,000 miles of track every day, but the safe journeys of the passengers on all those rail cars aren’t considered news.  A derailment, on the other hand, is certain to make headlines.  So it was in that vein that the biggest story of the Women’s PGA Championship was the Sunday afternoon train wreck that was Lexi Thompson’s closing nine.

Thompson was ten shots behind Chun after the opening round, and still trailed by three when the two went off together in Sunday’s final group.  While Chun stumbled out of the gate, Thompson scored two early birdies and walked off the 4th green with the lead, which she stretched to two shots at the turn.  But nine holes remained. 

She bunkered her approach on the par-4 12th, blasted out long, and made bogey.  On the 14th she stood over a simple two-foot putt for par, stabbed at it, and watched it roll well left of the hole.  Thompson bounced back with a birdie on 15, and still led by two with just three holes to play.  That changed, in gut wrenching fashion, within minutes.  After her second shot came up just short of the green at the par-5 16th, she bladed her pitch shot over the putting surface, powered a comeback putt way past the hole, and turned a likely birdie into another bogey.  Chun’s birdie on the same hole produced a two-shot swing, and Thompson promptly dropped out of the resulting tie on the 17th, where another short par putt never touched the hole.  One last birdie try on the final green was short and low from the moment it left Thompson’s putter.

After posting at least one Tour victory every season from 2013 through 2019, Thompson’s winless streak is now at 36 months and counting.  More worrisome than the simple lack of trophies is the growing number of ugly collapses such as Sunday’s.  While some have involved poor shotmaking, like the wayward drives and the pitch shot only a 20-handicapper could love that fans saw down the stretch at Congressional, the constant theme has been a bad case of the putting yips. At last year’s U.S. Women’s Open, a five shot lead with ten to play wasn’t enough of a cushion.  Yet Thompson is still ranked 6th in the world, a tribute to her consistency and raw talent.  She is the only player in top-10 without at least one win in the past year, much less over the equivalent of three full LPGA seasons.  And her commitment to growing the sport is as strong as ever.  While she declined to speak to the media after her latest heartbreak, Thompson patiently signed autographs for scores of kids waiting by Congressional’s clubhouse.

Because she has been part of the conversation about women’s golf for a decade and a half – Thompson qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12, turned professional at 15, and notched her first LPGA victory at 16 – it is easy to forget that she is still just 27.  She’s but a year older than Scottie Scheffler, two years younger than Justin Thomas, and the same age as Matt Fitzpatrick, this year’s winners of men’s majors who are collectively hailed as part of the PGA Tour’s youth movement.  There is, in short, every reason to think that the best years of Lexi Thompson’s career still lie ahead, years that should include many more LPGA wins and happier Sundays at majors. 

But before that can happen, Thompson must find a way to overcome a roadblock that is more mental than physical.  Whether it’s changing putters, or coaches, or her putting grip, or tying her shoelaces in a double knot and carrying her spare change in a different pocket, as the fictional Roy McAvoy was advised to do as a cure for the shanks in Tin Cup, Thompson needs to change something so that the last two feet to the hole stop looking to her like 200 yards.  Her legion of fans will be pulling for her to overcome her golfing demons soon.  After all, train wrecks may make headlines, but they are never good news.

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