Lexi Thompson began the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship tied with Michelle Wie at 10-under par. She immediately grabbed the lead on the 1st hole of the Mission Hills Country Club with a birdie up the hill from the fringe. Michelle tied her back with a birdie on the 2nd, but immediately gave it back on the 3rd. And that, it turned out, was the end of the tournament. Lexi never gave up the lead after that, helped by birdies on 4 and 5 to stretch her lead to 3. Once her lead got to 5.
But the best part of what turned out to be more of a match than stroke play was the final result was still an open issue until very late in the round.
Michelle stuck with her plan to play 10-foot-high stingers off the tee with her fairway woods rather than hitting her driver. And she looked completely stylish and in charge of those shots throughout the whole day.
Her only problem was that Lexi never took the driver out of her hands. She pounded her drivers sometimes 40 yards by Michelle’s careful strategy allowing her to gouge her short irons — sometimes very short irons — high in the air with plenty of backspin to land it in the vicinity of the hole. Meanwhile, Michelle was bouncing her longer irons long.
To Michelle’s credit, she was extremely disciplined in sticking to what she thought would eventually be a winning strategy, yet another measure of just how “up in the air” the final result would be. And it might have been different had she made opportune putts when she needed to; almost all of them came up short. She would just walk on to the next hole with her head held high.
She seems to have settled on working with her tabletop putting stance, bent over at the waist as she is, her eyes over the line. It seemed to be very effective getting the putter to move on the path, but perhaps a little too contrived and cramped to allow for any real feel of the putter. That might explain her speed issues, but then again, so would the lightning fast greens that looked like they might die tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Lexi and her new caddie, Benji Thompson (no relation), were having a good enough time that it came up later in the media center:
Benji was talking about how you guys were pretty carefree today. You were cutting up and telling jokes and singing songs and what have you. Is that good for your game? Are you the type of player that responds best to not stressing out and just being loose and not thinking about a lot of things?
Yeah, I would say — I just learned this in the past few weeks. I usually am mentally tough on myself. I get really serious, and when I struggle I get even more serious. But these last few weeks have been huge for me with Benji, and we’ve pretty much laughed our way through a lot of the rounds and just had fun, relaxed, and that’s really when my game comes out the most, like even when I’m just at home playing with my brothers, we’re just having fun, listening to music, and that’s when I play my best.
Now, that she “just learned this in the past few weeks” is a pretty profound piece of information given that almost all the players talk about, “just going out there tomorrow and have fun.” In fact, she’s so into this new knowledge, she said the exact same thing herself Friday night after her second-round 64:
I just went into last week and just tried to have fun out there, laugh in between shots, get my mind off the game, and same thing with this week. Just go out there and relax. Even though it’s a major, it’s just a golf tournament, so just going out there and having fun.
But talking about it and actually moving beyond the traditional stoicism of Tour pros is another, so hers is a big step.
The stoicism comes from being so deeply engaged in the present, you are hardly aware of what’s going on around you. As I have pointed out before, you sometimes don’t recognize it at the time — because you are so deeply in it — and only realize later that that slight buzz you had going was different. And then you really realize it when you “try” to get there again.
Trying never seems to bring forth that state any more than trying to be spellbound by a great book in the middle of the night does. When you are spellbound, you simply are spellbound and trying didn’t make it so. Same thing with being deeply enmeshed in the present. It just feels like being serious should work.
But it turns out that the same fun that makes a dinner party with good friends seem to go by in a flash, works in golf too.
The nice thing about this result is that Lexi received a big boost to her sense of herself; she’s now a major championship winner. And Michelle has clawed her way back to the imminent promise she always exhibited and she too came away satisfied and more confident:
You know, it was a lot of fun playing in contention, being in the final group. It was nice to be in the final group at Kraft again. I think it’s a sign. I think I’m getting close. I think I can get a lot of confidence from this week. I think I’m improving and improving, and I think getting second at a major, I think it means that I’m close, and I’m really proud of myself, and I’m really excited for the upcoming events.
Wouldn’t that be something if we got to see these two titans of women’s golf going head-to-head on a regular basis? I don’t know if our hearts could take it, if it’s anything like this week.