The chemistry that goes onto making a champion is a complicated formula involving physical talent, technical skill and, perhaps most mysteriously, mental and emotional balance. Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Annika Sorenstam are not only among the most-skilled players of all time, they are also among the mentally toughest and most emotionally resilient. It’s not an easy formula to synthesize.
Ariya Jutanugarn and Lexi Thompson, two of the top contenders at this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, come into Kemper Lakes Golf Club dragging a string of successes behind them, but they also bear the scars of some painful heartbreaks. Yet both seem to have learned from the past, which is the key element in merging the mental with the physical in golf.
And the duo is at remarkably similar places in their careers. Jutanugarn, 22, has nine LPGA wins with two major championships and is No. 2 in the Rolex Ranking. Thompson, 23, has nine victories with one major and is ranked No. 3. And Lexi would have two majors but for a four-stroke penalty at the 2017 ANA Inspiration, an incident that caused rule changes. Ariya would have three but for a late collapse at the 2016 ANA Inspiration. The way they have both moved on is impressive.
“That tournament is one of my favorites,” Thompson says about the ANA. “It's never changed, even with what happened.” Thompson, who has at least one victory for five consecutive seasons, is winless in 2018, with a second-place finish in the Honda Thailand and third last week at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. Her play has been solid with a few flaws in her short game.
“I've been playing some great golf, very consistent, so it's all a matter of everything just falling together for me,” Lexi says. “I know that I'm playing well, and as long as I'm having consistent finishes and knowing my game is super close, I know it will all fall together. Golf is a crazy game. You lose more than you win, so you just have to be patient with it and take the struggles as they come, and then it makes the successes that much better.”
That’s the kind of attitude that wins golf tournaments.
Jutanugarn, meanwhile, has bounced back several times in her short career. In addition to that 2016 disappointment at the ANA, when she finished with three consecutive bogeys and lost by two strokes, Jutanugarn missed six cuts after reaching No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings last year at this time, then bounced back to win the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
But her most remarkable comeback might have been a month ago at the U.S. Women’s Open. Seven strokes up with nine holes to play, Jutanugarn shot 41 on the back nine and needed to go to a two-hole aggregate playoff with Hyo Joo Kim. She fell behind by a stroke when Kim birdied the first extra hole but fought back to force sudden death and then made up-and-down from bunkers twice to win.
“I didn't feel good about [squandering that lead] and I talked to [game coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson] and after our conversation, I feel really proud of myself because I still fight all the way to finish. Even though I have really poor back nine, but my playoff I fight every shot, and I learned a lot. I feel like if I won by five strokes, I'm not going to learn anything, but that week I learned a lot.”
That is also the mindset of a winner.
Both Jutanugarn and Thompson face a field flush with possibly the deepest talent pool in the 68-year-history of the LPGA. The 17 tournaments this year have had 16 different winners from eight countries – Jutanugarn is the only repeat champion – and 11 of those winners are major champions. Literally, there are dozens of contenders this week.
Among them are defending champion Danielle Kang and the KPMG Women’s PGA winners the two years before that: Brooke Henderson and Rolex Ranking No. 1 Inbee Park. Jin Young Ko, the runaway leader for Rolex Rookie of the Year, comes to a difficult Kemper Lakes track first on tour in greens in regulation, second in driving accuracy and third in scoring average. That’s the kind of consistency that wins majors.
Last year, Kang stepped on the gas with four birdies in a row beginning on No. 11 to win by one stroke at Olympic Fields and in 20016, Henderson held off Lydia Ko in a playoff at Sahalee. This year, once again a great field is dueling on a great golf course that will certainly test not only the talent but also the toughness of the world’s best players.