Conservative play pays off for Thompson

Lexi Thompson on Saturday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She made the turn with 5 birdies carded.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – By the time Lexi Thompson reached the 18th tee at Mission Hills, wind gusts howled, sediment flew through the air and the views of the surrounding mountains were blurred and hazy. And it would only get worse.

Saturday at the Kraft was the kind of day where your eyes stung when you stepped out of the dry desert wind. Thompson ended a round of 4-under 68 by hitting knock-down shots and taking few risks. She had started the day at even par, dove as low as 6 under to climb as high as T-3 on the leaderboard, then bogeyed No. 18 to finish at 4 under for the tournament. She and Vicky Hurst (5 under) will lead the charge for the Americans come Sunday.

Thompson was the story of the early morning as she turned with five birdies, no bogeys. She gave back her first shot with a three-putt bogey at No. 14 as a bird’s shadow crossed her ball mid-stroke. She was quick to point out in her post-round interview that the bird was no excuse for that three-putt but nonetheless, said it “messed with my mind.”

What didn’t appear to get inside her head was the gusting winds. At No. 18 she changed her strategy to avoid a train wreck. By that time, it was blowing so hard that she would have had to play a drive at the corner of the water left of the hole. Instead, she chose a more conservative line. It left her in the trees, and even though a missed 4 footer ultimately meant bogey, she took pride in the fact that she stayed out of the water.

“I was aiming way right of that water,” she said. “I didn’t care if the wind took it. That’s why I ended up in the trees.”

The last time Thompson played the Kraft Nabisco Championship, it was as an amateur. She received an exemption in both 2009 and ’10. Her round of 68 on Saturday is not only the lowest in three starts in the Kraft, but was her lowest so far in a major. She’s played in nine.

Most of that she credits to better putting on Saturday. That, in turn, will amount to increased confidence Sunday even though she said the clubs would see no more action that afternoon. It was way too windy to practice.

In addition to minimizing potential damage from the wind, Thompson has managed to navigate changes in the course through the week caused by growing rough and drying greens. She hit more long irons on Saturday, and hit them close.

“When the wind came up, you have to take more club and just swing easy and expect good ball flight shots and expect to be close,” she said.

More wind is in the forecast for the final round, and Thompson also will have to erase the five shots that stand between her and co-leaders Yani Tseng and Karen Sjodin.

Yani Tseng. When the time came to predict what kind of round it might take to get ahead of the World No. 1 on Sunday, Thompson guessed 66. She didn’t dwell on the question. She didn’t dwell on the forecast, either.

“It all depends if the wind picks up like it is now or if it’s going to stay steady and play easy, but I’m just going to take one shot at a time and just try to make birdies,” she said.

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