NAPLES, Fla. – The 2017 LPGA season ended the same way it started – heartbreak for top American Lexi Thompson. The same woman who suffered a four-stroke penalty on Sunday at the ANA Inspiration missed a two-foot par putt that would’ve given her the chance at a clean sweep at the CME Group Tour Championship, including LPGA Player of the Year honors and a No. 1 ranking.
Instead she walked off the 18th green asking her caddie, “Did that really happen?”
Minutes later, Ariya Jutanugarn’s caddie told his boss not to look at the leaderboard situated across the pond at Tiburon Golf Club. But the powerful Thai player couldn’t help herself, and immediately swiveled ’round to take a peek.
With shaky hands, the 21-year-old converted a 15-foot birdie putt to claim her seventh career victory at the CME Group Tour Championship. Tears of joy fell down her face.
“I’m going to say I’m really, really proud of myself,” said Jutanugarn, “not because I won the tournament, but I have more confidence after this week.”
Jutanugarn struggled with a recurring shoulder injury not long after becoming the first Thai player to reach No. 1 in early June. Her midseason slump included five missed cuts and a withdrawal. To climb out, the player known as “May” changed her focus from rankings and results to simply having fun. On Thursday, Jutanugarn told older sister Moriya that she didn’t want the season to end.
“Even (though) I played so bad last few months,” said Ariya, “I learned a lot, and I’m growing up a lot.”
Back-to-back birdie putts from 15 feet put the resilient Jutanugarn at 15-under 273, one stroke ahead of Thompson and Jessica Korda, who left her birdie putt short on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff. All three players closed with 67s.
So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, both major winners in 2017, became the first players to share Rolex Player of the Year honors in the tour’s 67-year history. Ryu, the player who beat Thompson in a playoff at ANA, called it awkward. Park became the first LPGA player to collect both Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors since Nancy Lopez accomplished the feat in 1978.
The season-ender was far from a total loss for Thompson, who drove back to her home in Delray Beach, Fla., with a $1 million bonus check for winning the CME Race to the Globe and a point toward the LPGA Hall of Fame for clinching the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. In 2016, the LPGA had a record five players finish the season below 70. This season that number vaulted to 12.
Thompson placed second six times in 2017 and closed the season with a 69.114 scoring average, beating Sung Hyun Park by 0.133.
Thompson’s rise in her sixth year on tour was largely due, interestingly enough, to improved putting. On the final hole at CME, she beautifully lagged her first putt from 60 feet and looked poised to redeem an emotionally-trying season.
“I mean, it was a short putt,” she said of the remaining 2 feet. “I don’t really play break on those. I don’t know. I just had a little mishap in my hands and just pushed off to the right.”
When it was over, Thompson huddled with a couple dozen family and friends who came out to support the former south Florida prodigy. The 22-year-old collected herself before signing autographs on her way to the 18th green ceremony. The loss at CME will stick for a while, but that gut-punch in the desert prepared her for moments like this.
“It didn’t stop me,” she said, “and this won’t either.”