Lexi, Henderson out to narrow gap on Ko at Skirts

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DALY CITY, Calif. – They’re looking for an edge to narrow the gap on Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko.

Lexi Thompson and Brooke Henderson are making meaningful moves up the world rankings this year, and yet Ko keeps moving farther away from them and everyone else.

Thompson, 21, won the Honda LPGA Thailand seven weeks ago and is coming off top-10 finishes in her last two starts. She moved to No. 3 in the world rankings after winning in Thailand, surpassing Stacy Lewis as the top American. It’s the highest Thompson has climbed in the rankings.

Henderson, 18, arrives for this week’s Swinging Skirts Classic off her seventh consecutive top-10 finish. She broke through to win the Cambia Portland Classic last August, boosting her rocket ride toward the top 10 in the world. Her ride really started here at Lake Merced Golf Club a year ago, when she arrived at No. 207 in the world. She’s No. 7 now.

Both Thompson and Henderson covet that No. 1 ranking, but Ko shows no signs of letting go with three worldwide victories already this year, including the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration.

This, however, is a week Thompson and Henderson could make statements.

Ko, who will turn 19 on Sunday, has thrived at Lake Merced since the Swinging Skirts moved here three years ago. She’s looking to win this event for the third consecutive time. She defeated Morgan Pressel in a playoff last year and beat Lewis in a weekend duel the year before.

“There’s not a bad part of Lydia’s game,” Thompson said. “The parts I would say are the most amazing are her putting and short game. I’ve never seen somebody get up and down from everywhere.”

Henderson watched Ko overtake her as the leader on the weekend at Lake Merced last year.

“She’s an awesome player,” Henderson said.

Thompson and Henderson both made significant adjustments to their games since last season.

Thompson spent the offseason focused on dialing in her wedge play and improving her short game. She says her biggest strides, however, may be in her mental approach, on better dealing with the game’s emotional challenges. That has helped her work through seeing her putter go hot and cold this season.

At the start of the 2015, Thompson began working with John Denney, a “performance coach” based in South Florida, where Thompson lives.

“I knew my attitude was holding me back sometimes, as far as me getting too down on myself, saying negative things to myself after bad shots, things that would carry over to the next shot,” Thompson told GolfChannel.com. “I knew if I changed that, my game could get a lot better.

“I think you’ve seen a difference in the last year and a half.”

Denney told GolfChannel.com specifics of what he and Thompson talk about are confidential, but he did outline how he works with every athlete on “The Harmony Exercise.” Basically, it’s a specific system that uses breathing and positive thoughts to get an athlete into an optimum state to perform a skill.

“When you come to me, the first thing you learn is what a proper breath and proper thought do to the nervous system and to cardiac rhythm,” Denney said.

Denney hooks up his athletes to an EmWave Pro monitor to show them exactly how breathing, thoughts and even visualization affect their body.

“You can completely change heart rhythms,” Denney said.

Thompson said she also has learned from Denney that an attitude of gratefulness for opportunities helps her.

“Don't get me wrong,” Thompson said. “I still get frustrated on the golf course, with some bad shots, but you just have to learn to let it go and go into the next shot or the next hole and just forget about it.”

Henderson substantially boosted her power game in the offseason, going to a 48-inch shaft, the longest the Rules of Golf allow. She used a 47¼ inch shaft on her driver last year, which was already long, about 3 inches longer than the average driver’s shaft in the women’s game. Henderson is averaging 270 yards per drive this season, about 16 yards longer than she averaged last year.

Henderson said the extra length, combined with firmer conditions at Lake Merced, helped her get to places on the course in practice rounds this week that she couldn’t reach last year.

“I think my driver will give me an advantage this week,” Henderson said.

Henderson will be looking to build on memories of getting into contention here last year.

“I love this golf course,” Henderson said. “I think it's definitely a ball-striker's course. You have to hit it straight and pretty long off the tee, which I think really suits my game well.”

Thompson and Henderson know Lake Merced’s a great venue to measure just how their games compare to Ko’s.