SAN FRANCISCO — Lexi Thompson stood in the interview area just off the 18th green fighting back tears. Three hours earlier, she held what felt like an insurmountable five-shot lead. Now, she was recounting where it all went wrong.
“Yeah, of course it’s tough,” she said. “I really didn’t feel like I hit any bad golf shots. That’s what this golf course can do to you, and that’s what I’ve said all week.”
But soon after the questions started, the press conference was brought to an abrupt halt. Thompson’s agent intervened after just two questions and declined to allow his client to speak any further. She was whisked away in a flash, and attention turned to the playoff between Yuka Saso and Nasa Hataoka starting just 100 yards away.
Six hours earlier, Thompson stood on the range and pounded ball after ball looking in total control of her swing. One after another the shiny Titleist practice balls penetrated the Pacific Ocean breeze. At 10:35 a.m., it was go-time.
Thompson walked to the 1st tee with a smile on her face. This new-and-improved version of herself got Thompson into this position, and she brought that attitude to the course on major Sunday.
“I just realized that I needed to change my mindset,” Thompson said after her third round. “It was only hurting me. … The mental side was really getting to me. I was just taking it way too seriously and thinking that Lexi depended on my score.”
She striped her opening tee shot and hit her approach onto the green for a great look at eagle. The putt didn’t go in, but a birdie to start the day never hurts. Thompson smiled as she made her way to the 2nd tee.
However, what many couldn’t see was the quality of the strike on that eagle putt. Brandel Chamblee later minced no words about the stroke.
“Her putt on the first hole, she missed the center of the putter by a half an inch,” the Golf Channel analyst said. “I’ve never seen a professional golfer miss the center of the putter by a wider margin than that.”
Those putting woes would prove to be her undoing later in the afternoon.
The rest of the front nine was rather uneventful for Thompson. She bogeyed No. 2 but bounced back with a birdie at the 5th. She made the turn at eight under for the tournament and was four clear of the field.
The final group made the turn, and Thompson made par at 10. The smile remained on her face. A cheer came from the gallery.
“You got this, Lexi!”
Four-shot lead with eight to play. But with one swing on the 11th tee, things began to unravel. Thompson hooked her drive into the rough and drew a terrible lie. She muscled it up near the green. A chunked chip and three putts later and her lead had been cut in half. Still, the smile remained.
A drone buzzed overhead, and the crowd size swelled. Everyone wanted to be a part of the coronation. Thompson made par at 12 and stepped to the tee at 13. The day before she had blistered a 3-wood onto a downslope and converted for birdie. Sunday was much different.
Perhaps fearing the thicket of trees left of the fairway, Thompson pushed her shot into the right rough. Again, all she could muster was pushing the ball to the front of the green. And again, she left the chip short. Another bogey.
“That’s OK, Lexi, we still love you!”
Pars followed on 15 and 16, but with Nasa Hataoka making her move in the group ahead, the lead was reduced to one. Still, pars at the last two would be enough.
Off the 17th tee, Thompson again pulled her shot into the rough. She pitched out and held a wedge in her hand looking at the green. The ball ballooned into the air and came down 15 yards short of the green. Her par putt never had a chance. Yuka Saso made her second birdie in a row, and there was a three-way tie at the top.
Murmurs went through the crowd.
“Is she really going to blow this?”
“Why can’t she make any putts?”
“What hole do they use for a playoff?”
Thompson fired her tee shot into the fairway on the 18th. Suddenly, fans broke the rope line. For a moment, it felt like we would have a repeat of the PGA Championship with patrons flooding the fairway, but a line of volunteers and a lone police officer wrangled the masses before it got out of hand.
Still, the smile on Thompson’s face remained. She struck her wedge from the fairway and watched helplessly as the ball found the deep bunker fronting the green. The crowd groaned.
She splashed out to 10 feet. It was a must-make to keep her fading title hopes alive. She pulled back the putter, stroked the ball and …
“Flavortown!” a fan yelled.
The ball never had a chance. It stopped two feet short of the hole. All Thompson could do was laugh. The win that had felt like a foregone conclusion hours earlier had been squandered. She walked up the hill to the scoring tent and disappeared inside.
Her second major title will have to wait.