PITTSFORD, NY - Lexi Thompson stood in the fairway of the par-4 18th hole – one that had flummoxed players more than any other on Thursday and had a higher scoring average than the par-5 third – and got the yardage from her caddie, Benji Thompson: “183 yards.” It’s a spot few in the field can fathom hitting it to on that hole – a 422-yard beast that plays into the wind and uphill.
“She probably didn't have a 3‑wood coming into 18,” said Mo Martin with a laugh.
Nope, Thompson hit “a knock-down five iron” from a place Martin – a fellow 2014 major champion - would have hit a hybrid, and struck it to eight feet, draining the putt to finish off a 6-under-par 66. It was one of only eight birdies on 18 all day and it was also the longest iron she hit on a par-4 all day on a course where many players hit multiple hybrids and fairway woods.
“I would say [my length] is definitely an advantage,” Thompson said. “Coming into the week I knew this golf course was going to be set up good for me. I get to hit driver on every hole, but you have to hit it straight in majors because usually they grow the rough up pretty deep and that’s what majors call for.”
Majors also call for a short-term memory like the one she showed on 18. She was 7-under through 14 but three-putt bogeyed both the 15th and 16th holes.
“I just didn’t have good speed on the two putts and didn’t make the come backers,” she said. “But you know, it happens. It’s golf. You’re going to hit bad shots and miss putts, so I just tried not to let it get to me and just tried to birdie one of the last two and unfortunately it was the harder one of the two holes, so I was pretty happy about that.”
The five-iron strike was a reinforcement heading into the second round that what she’s been working on is working. She hadn’t been pleased with her play since the U.S. Women’s Open with a missed cut, a tie for 54th, a tie for 15th and a 41st in the four starts since. Specifically, it’s been her iron play that’s been the issue and she’s been working to fix them. The old saying “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” never seems to apply to the world’s top golfers, and Thompson isn’t immune from the urge to tinker. Just like when so many of the top players make a switch, she did it on the premise that the pain would be temporary and her game would benefit long-term.
She started to see the fruits of her labor Thursday.
“Just being confident over my irons, and just working on the swing change and staying with it I think has helped me out so much and just trusting it out there,” she said.
So what needed changing in a swing that’s helped her rise to No. 6 in the world at the age of 19?
“It’s pretty simple. I mean I just usually take it back a little closed with my club face, so I’m just working on a little bit of more rotation on the way back,” Thompson said. “But mainly what I’ve always been focusing on is just more controlled swings and not getting too all over the place with my golf swing.”
In recent years, Thompson’s become obsessed with working out. Her Instagram page is littered with videos of her latest workout. She’s doing more cardio than ever before and tailoring her strength workouts to target her balance, core and flexibility. The changes have been tangible on the course as well.
“I would say I’ve gotten a little bit longer,” Thompson said.
It’s more than her golf swing or any added distance. She’s more prepared for this moment because she’s been there before but knows how to close it now. She knows what it feels like to tee it off on Sunday in a major and have to protect the lead all day. And she knows how to go get that advantage, too.
“Getting that Kraft Nabisco win has helped me out so much. Just pulling it off that Sunday, being relaxed and staying with it one shot at a time and doing my routine,” Thompson said. “Gave me a lot of confidence going into every other tournament after that, especially the majors.”
No telling what heights a second major could take her game to.