Lexi Thompson primed for majors
She's given the answer now so often this LPGA season, it sounds as if it's by rote. Does having a major championship victory under her belt matter that much to Lexi Thompson going into another major? Or by simply asking that question, are we leading the witness?
Thompson, 19, has two more LPGA majors to play as a teenager: This week's LPGA Championship in Pittsford, New York (a suburb of Rochester) and the Evian Championship next month in France.
And she says, yes, the mental boost she gained from winning April's Kraft Nabisco Championship -- the LPGA's first major this season and the first major title of her career -- really does make a difference.
"It changes the way I play in that it gives me more confidence going into all tournaments in general," Thompson said. "But majors especially, knowing I can pull it off under major-championship pressure."
The thing is, pressure -- that sort of catch-all word that means different things to different athletes -- has not seemed to be a big worry for Thompson. Admittedly, every golfer of career substance will talk about the process of learning to win -- from ahead and from behind -- how to keep momentum going to the finish line, and how to scramble and grind when your game isn't at its best.
How "pressure" fits into all of that can be complicated. But it's safe to say that if you've been on the life track of becoming a pro golfer even before you got your driver's license (the way Thompson has), you've long since accepted the pressure part.
Probably the bigger keys to Thompson's first major -- and her current No. 6 world ranking -- are how she's worked on fine-tuning her short game and how she's upped her fitness level. But perhaps that little extra "I know I can win big events" mindset will be a factor for Thompson this week.
Certainly, she's gotten wiser about how she can build on what she's always excelled at: Bombing her drives.
"Even when I was a lot younger, I was definitely fearless," Thompson said. "I just rammed them; I didn't really care where it went. I still try to keep a little bit of that fearlessness in me.
"You can be aggressive at certain times, but you still have to play smart."
It's not surprising that the Kraft Nabisco was Thompson's first major victory. She first played the Kraft Nabisco at California's Mission Hills Country Club in 2009, when she was 14, and she got the feeling that it would be a good course for her. That panned out in a big way this year.
Her game stayed hot in the weeks after the Kraft Nabisco win; she finished in the top seven in four of her next five events. That included a tie for seventh at the U.S. Women's Open, where a third-round 74 took the wind out of her sails. Thompson then wasn't able to put any Sunday pressure on winner Michelle Wie.
Thompson had outdueled Wie on the final day of the Kraft Nabisco, and people were looking forward to the two of them potentially being contenders again at the LPGA Championship.
But Wie is out three to five weeks with a hand injury. Thompson has stayed injury-free so far in her young career, although a cold seemed to impact her during the Women's British Open last month, where she tied for 54th.
She came back from that to tie for 15th at the Marathon Classic on July 20. Then she was one of four players on the U.S. team at the inaugural International Crown, where the Americans didn't fare well, failing to qualifying for Sunday's singles play.
Thompson and Cristie Kerr competed in a playoff at the International Crown versus South Korea, with advancement to Sunday on the line. Kerr's birdie and Thompson's par versus two birdies from the Koreans on the first playoff hole sent the Americans home early.
Afterward, Thompson's teammates seemed particularly protective of her, saying they "wouldn't let" her dwell on the playoff.
"I think she was the best player the last couple days," Kerr said. "I mean, it was so much fun to watch her play."
That's a good description of Thompson when her game is working. But even when it's not, she doesn't lack for fans. While it's difficult to quantify such things, at least with American audiences, she may be the most universally popular player on tour right now. She's an absolute magnet for little kids, and everybody enjoys seeing players who can wallop the ball.
Thompson is leading the LPGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 271.205 yards. That part of her game has never been in doubt. Last year, though, she was 104th on tour in putting average and 75th in sand saves. This year, those numbers have gone up to 40th and fifth, which gives an indication of how she's improved her short game.
"It was important getting that under control," Thompson said. "I think it has put a lot less pressure on my ball-striking."
As for the fitness component, that's an area where she's seen immediate results from the effort she's invested during the past couple of years.
"I love working out," Thompson said. "I feel a lot better about myself. I can get through my rounds better and not be as tired. I enjoy going to work out actually after my rounds, too."
Thompson finished 41st at the Meijer LPGA Classic in Michigan this past weekend. But there are some positives to take from that, as she had her best round, a 69, on Sunday.
She has played in the LPGA Championship just three times, with a best finish of tied for 28th. But the tournament has changed venues for its last year in the Rochester area, going from Locust Hill to Monroe Golf Club. The LPGA is saying so long to an area where it's had an event for nearly four decades, and that might bring out even larger-than-usual crowds.
If Thompson is in the mix over the weekend, that may boost attendance as well. To excel in that spotlight is what she wants -- what she's wanted since she was as young as many of the adoring munchkins who follow her around at events now.
"I really love it," Thompson said. "I've always loved playing in front of huge crowds and having people cheer me on in between holes. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that people are there supporting me."