NAPLES, FLORIDA - The game is filled with anecdotes of players practicing in the dark, practicing after wins, practicing beyond all reason. Ben Hogan supposedly hit balls until his hands bled. Whether or not he actually did, the imagery – a lone figure on the range, one swing after another, digging the game out of the dirt - has captured the imagination of golfers for more than 70 years.
On Thursday at the CME Group Tour Championship, Lexi Thompson casually mentioned doing the same. “I hit balls until my hands started bleeding,” Thompson said. “I had blisters and they started to bleed. I'm like, ‘Okay, maybe I should stop.’”
Unlike the stories of Hogan, Thompson had the bandages on her fingers to prove it.
“I've been working so hard on my game in general trying to improve on it, and it's been kind of an up and down roller coaster with an unfortunate week last week,” Thompson said, referring to her missed cut at the U.S. Women’s Open in Houston. “But I've worked extremely hard this last week coming into this (event), so I’m very happy with how today went and how I committed to my shots.”
The “today” she referenced was a 7-under par 65 at Tiburon at the CME Group Tour Championship, a round that included eight birdies – five in a six-hole stretch on the front nine - and one bogey. It’s early, but the Thompson who teed off in the opening round looked more like the player who ascended to No.2 in the Rolex Rankings in 2017 and was one short, missed putt on this golf course away from ascending to No. 1 than she has throughout 2020. Since that moment in 2017, Thompson has been up and down, hot and cold. She won the CME Group Tour Championship in 2018 and the ShopRite Classic in 2019 but also fell to 11th in the Rolex World Rankings and entered the week with only two top-10 finishes this season.
“Honestly, I've just been trying to find something that's worked in my swing, something that felt like my swing had a good rhythm to it,” Thompson said. “(The swing) worked really well at ANA (where she finished 4th) and I played really well. I hit it good there. But it kind of went away, of course. With golf it works for one week and goes away (the next). But I've been trying get to that feel again and really know that my draw is going to work. Aim it on the right side of pins and just draw back to them. Just really trust my golf swing. Get over my shots and know that I can hit them well.”
Joe Hallett, who was on the range earlier this week working with Thompson confirmed that trust was more important than anything technical.
“The best thing about Lexi right now is that she is committed,” Hallett said. “She’s trying to get her setup solid and level, the way she was at the ANA Inspiration, which is right after she worked with Jim McLean. After that, she said that’s the best it’s felt all year.
“With all the hard work she’s put in this year, my only suggestion to her was that she keep all the technical stuff in the golf bag and go play that great golf that she knows how to play.”
Thompson certainly took that advice to heart on Thursday. She had so many birdies she forgot where she’d made them. What she didn’t forget was how Tiburon fits her eye and suits her natural draw.
It also helps having her brother, Curtis, a winner of the Korn Ferry Tour, on her bag this week. The brother-sister dynamic is evident in the calm and confident way both walk down the fairways and chat about shots. Curtis says things that a normal caddie would not. And because he is a player, Lexi listens.
“It's great,” Lexi said. “I love hanging out with my brother. We hang out basically every weekend. If we are both at home, we are always playing golf together and joking around. It's great to have him out here. I really appreciate him helping me out and keeping me loose out there. Whether I play good or bad, he always keeps a smile on my face.
“He basically reads every putt with me. Besides like the short ones. I'll just say -- from like three to five feet I'll just be like, ‘not much in it, left center,’ and he'll just agree with me. But, yeah, he'll get in there and read every putt with me. It's nice to get reassurance and extra confidence.”
It’s also nice seeing your name atop a leaderboard again, especially at an event with the largest winner’s check in women’s golf this season.
“It's more of a tempo and rhythm and honestly trust factor for me,” Thompson said. “Doing my routine and just making sure I'm relaxed and committing to my targets.”That, and working until your hands bleed, will pay off eventually. For Thompson, eventually might be this week.