You can see the difference in the eyes. There’s a sparkle, a look of joy that hasn’t been around for quite some time, years perhaps. Lexi Thompson looks as happy as she ever has in her decade-long career. Her carriage is a tick slower and more confident. The shoulders are more relaxed. The telltale facial muscles around her cheeks look as though she just came out of a spa, not like someone who is taking a one-shot lead into the final round of her 15th U.S. Women’s Open, a championship she is still looking to capture.
Turns out, this new look is by design.
“Honestly, I mean, I haven't really struggled but I haven't played up to my standards,” Thompson said after the round of the championship, a bogey-free 66 on Saturday to reach 7-under par, one clear of Yuka Saso and four ahead of 17-year-old amateur Megha Ganne. “I just realized that I needed to change my mindset. It was only hurting me.”
She has always worn her intensity like an ill-fitting suit, obvious to those who watched and cared about her, but something Lexi, herself, could not see. A mediocre shot too often led to a frown, a so-so round to a furrowed brow. Even her wins brought reactions of relief instead of joy.
Now, she looks like she’s enjoying herself, happy for the opportunity and the company. For the first time in anyone’s memory, she signed autographs during the middle of the back nine, stopping between the 15th green and the 16th tee to engage a group of young girls, chat and sign whatever they wanted. At the time, she was tied for the lead with Saso with back-to-back par-5s ahead.
It is a different Lexi, one everyone is thrilled to see.
“The mental side, I think, was really getting to me,” she said on Saturday. “I was just taking (the game) way too seriously and thinking that Lexi (my identity) depended on my score.
“It's really hard for me to not think that. But I just got into a state where I understand that I'm going to hit bad shots and it is what it is. I can manage to get up-and-down or do what I can.”
All successful athletes eventually find the balance between intensity and integrity; between drive and damage; between performance and person. But getting there is not easy.
“Easier said than done,” she said when asked how you flip that mental switch. Then she smiled and sarcastically said, “’Oh, just be happier.’ It takes a lot of hard work. I've been calling (performance coach) John Denney a few times a week and just really focusing on the good in my life, just the blessings. Just to be out here is a blessing, honestly. And just everything good. Then all the fans and everything, so really just embracing all of that. I mean, COVID didn't help with no fans out here. I just love playing in front of people and just seeing those little kids and hearing the chants. It brings me happiness and a reason to play golf again.”
Denney is a Jupiter-based counselor who has been teaching The Harmony Exercise for decades, since learning it from Carroll Righter, an astrologer and spiritual advisor to many Hollywood celebrities, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan.
“It's a lot about gratitude with John,” Lexi said. “It is very spiritual and just gratitude, just being grateful for everything in my life and being grateful that I have the opportunity to be able to play a golf course like this or any golf course, in general, honestly, and just being out here. I mean, whether I play good or bad it's still an amazing experience.”
No matter where the attitude comes from, the Lexi who leads this U.S. Women’s Open seems much more engaged with the moment and much less reliant on the outcome.
“I mean, I've hit a few bad tee shots, I guess, like the one, I forget what hole it was, but any shot that got a bad bounce that went into the rough or the lies that you just have to pitch it out, I mean, normally I would be, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is awful, this is a terrible lie, like, I’ve got to wedge it out now,’” she said. “It's gotten to where I’m like, ‘Okay, I can pitch it out, wedge it up, give myself a par opportunity, and if I make bogey, I'll move on to the next hole and give myself a birdie opportunity.’”
A gracious golfer might not always be a good golfer. But an attitude of gratitude more often than not makes you a better person.
Right now, Lexi Thompson seems to have the right balance of both.