NAPLES, Fla - Lexi Thompson dispelled the demons and Ariya Jutanugarn pocketed a cool $1 million on Sunday as both left the CME Group Tour Championship a lot richer in very different ways.
Thompson’s four-stroke victory over Nelly Korda at Tiburón Golf Club ended an arduous journey for her that began in 2017 while Jutanugarn completed a sweep of all the top 2018 LPGA awards, firmly establishing herself as the best in the women’s game. In every sense of the word, they both left Naples, Fla., as winners.
Coming into the week, Lexi, who missed a putt inside two feet in 2017 that cost her this tournament, was winless in a season during which she took a month off midway through to regroup and reassess her priorities.
But she played like a champion all week and on Sunday closed with a 70 to put her at 18-under par 270 with Korda at 274. If Lexi was thinking about last year it was only as a motivational tool. This week, her putter was her best friend.
Thompson has now won at least once in each of the last six seasons, the longest active streak on the LPGA. Brittany Lincicome and So Yeon Ryu tied for third at 275; Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko, Marina Alex and Carlota Ciganda were at 276; Nasa Hataoka finished at 278 with Brooke Henderson, Amy Olson and Sei Young Kim at 279.
Jutanugarn swept Rolex Player of the Year, Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average – each of which earn an LPGA Hall of Fame point – the money title, LEADERS Top 10 title, Rolex Annika Major Award, Race to the CME Globe $1 million bonus and is No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings as she won three times, including her second major at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Thompson began the day three strokes ahead of Korda and six clear of Ciganda. After three days of near-perfect golf – 65-67-68 with 15 birdies and an eagle – it was more of a survival test on Sunday. But with a three-stroke lead going into the day, par was her friend. She did what she had to do, making four birdies and two bogeys.
“Yeah, you can say that,” Thompson, who had her dog Leo on her lap, said when asked if this might be her most special win. “It’s been very up and down the last two years, with a lot of ups but a lot of stuff I’ve been going through. This is the best. Overall, it was a very special week.”
Both Thompson and Korda birdied No. 1 and when Korda made bogey on No. 2, Thompson had a four-stroke lead, seven ahead of Ciganda and Ko as the day quickly became a two-woman race. Korda's 6-foot birdie on No. 12 pulled her within two strokes of Thompson, the closest she got all day. But the key came on No. 13 when Korda missed a 10-foot par try and Thompson made a 4-foot birdie to be four ahead with five holes left.
“I never like to allow myself to get ahead of myself,” Thompson said. “I just kept saying to myself, ‘Just do what you’ve been doing the last three days.’ Once I hit the green on 18, I said to Curtis, ‘You’re going to share this with me.’ To have him on the bag, it’s the best.”
Curtis, her brother, who is also a professional golfer, was a last-minute substitute as her caddie and in addition to helping her read putts, kept her loose all week by reciting movie lines to her. It was a formula that worked.
In the battle for the $1 million bonus, Henderson briefly took over the top spot, but Jutanugarn kicked it into another gear and closed with a 66 – the low round of the day.
“I’m so proud of myself,” Jutanugarn said. “All week, I was thinking about all of the things [at stake] but today I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to have a good feeling going into the off season.” Now she has a million reasons to feel good – and more.
In a season that produced 26 different winners from 10 countries, Americans led the way with nine champions while South Korea had seven. Jutanugarn and Sung Hyun Park had three wins each with Nasa Hataoka and Brooke Henderson each taking two titles.
For Thompson, it was a year of redemption and reordered priorities after a grueling 2017 that began at the ANA Inspiration, included a cancer scare for her mother and ended with that missed putt at the Tour Championship.
But Thompson took control of her life, sought out happiness in places off the golf course and bounced back brilliantly.
“I’ve been playing golf all my life,” Thompson said about her new perspective. “I’ve come to realize that it’s just what I do. I have so much more to my life – my family and friends.”
Of all her 10 LPGA victories, this may well be the most impressive for Thompson – and the most important. This one involved a lot more than just golf. It involved a woman finding happiness on and off the golf course.