Professional / LPGA Tour

Lexi Thompson turns it around, takes slim ANA lead over dream board of contenders

Lexi Thompson holds a one-shot lead at the ANA Inspiration.
Lexi Thompson holds a one-shot lead at the ANA Inspiration. (Getty Images)

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – It was scintillating to the finish. Lexi Thompson, who looked like she might putt her way out of the tournament midway through Saturday’s round, eagled the 18th hole to take the outright lead at 10-under 206 heading into the final round of the ANA Inspiration.

Among the chasers are some of the brightest stars in women’s golf: Lydia Ko (-9), In Gee Chun (-9), Charley Hull (-8), Michelle Wie (-7), Suzann Pettersen (-7) and Ai Miyazato (-7).

It’s a dream board for a tour that just keeps rising. 

Thompson, who fell as low as 6 under after a bogey on the 10th hole, missed four putts from inside 7 feet halfway through her round. 

“I did get frustrated,” she said, “I’m not going to lie.”

Thompson credited her work with psychologist John Denney, whom she started working with 16 months ago, as a key to helping her stay positive.

“It’s helped me out dramatically,” she said.

Thompson, the 2014 ANA champion, played the last four holes at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course in 4 under. The tee was moved up 30 yards on the closing par 5, and Thompson hit a 5-iron from 207 yards to 12 feet. She’ll be paired with another big-hitter, Ariya Jutanugarn, in the last group on Sunday.

Thailand’s Jutanugarn was a budding world-beater when she turned professional, but a freak accident at the 2013 Wegmans LPGA Championship left her with a serious right shoulder injury that resulted in a major setback.

In 2015, Jutanugarn missed 10 consecutive cuts. Moriya Jutanugarn, Ariya’s older sister who missed the cut this week, said Ariya lost a lot of confidence and needed to find something that would put her in the fairway.

Enter the 2-iron. This week, at the urging of her caddie, Jutanugarn left the driver out of her bag and hit only 3-wood and 2-iron. The only other player on tour that carried a 2-iron of late was Laura Davies. Jutanugarn did the same thing in Singapore.

“She hits 2-iron like my driver,” said Moriya, who hits it 230-240 yards off the tee.

Jutanugarn, who shot 67 in the third round and trails by one, ranks 10th this week in driving distance at 264.3. Thompson, who brought her driver, leads the field at 290.

World No. 1 Ko put forth the most consistent effort. The newly crowned Kia Classic champ plodded along with 15 pars and three birdies to shoot 69. This is by far Ko’s best effort at this championship, and she looked positively care-free in her post-round interview, fussing only about the bugs flying around her head.

Told she’d be the youngest player in history to win back-to-back majors should she prevail on Sunday, the 18-year-old Ko shot back a sarcastic “thanks” and then laughed.

“I can’t believe Evian was last September and we’re already in March,” said Ko, who became the youngest major winner in history in France. “Time just flies.”

Chun, the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open winner, sure doesn’t look like a player who was forced to sit out the last three events due to injury. The unfortunate suitcase accident that occurred in Singapore left her both physically and emotionally hurt. The desert air has recharged her appetite, and the support of the fans restored her spirit.

“Every time I play golf out here at the tournament site, I become just joyful,” she said.

English star Hull has decided to belly flop into Poppie’s Pond should she win on Sunday. Her caddie, Adam Woodward, made a fantastic flying leap when he won with Sun Young Yoo in 2012.

“We’d cause a tsunami, I reckon,” Hull said.

Hull, 20, birdied the last four holes to put herself in prime position, making putts from 25, 45, 12 and 2 feet. 

“I’m buzzing for it,” she said.

Hull first competed at Mission Hills Country Club as a 16-year-old amateur and made the cut. When asked how much she planned to look at a board that has 14 players within four shots of Thompson, Hull said she rarely even scrolls through the scores on her phone.

“I used to like look at it, but now I don’t really take much notice because off the golf course I don’t even think about golf, and on the golf course I don’t even think about golf to be honest,” she said. “I just look at a leaderboard sometimes if I’m bored and I’m nosey.”

And then there’s Wie, the most high-profile player in women’s golf who has been dazzling these desert fans for a dozen years. Wie’s mad scramble on Saturday included a perfect 4-for-4 in sand saves. Chalk up her bogey-free round to a great day with the putter, an area she has struggled with in 2016. This week she tried to channel her inner Jack Nicklaus on the short putts, and it has worked out beautifully.

“Very proud of the way I stayed patient out there today,” she said.

Thompson planned to barbecue with her family on Saturday night at the house they rented near the course. She has her parents, godparents and agent in town. Maybe watch a movie.

“I do know what it takes to win on this golf course,” said a confident Thompson. 

She’ll have to hold off the calvary to do it once more.

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