RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – They arrived at the ANA Inspiration this week searching for the powers that made their major championship breakthroughs so magical last year.
Thompson overpowered the Dinah Shore Course in winning her first major last year, electrifying women’s golf with the kind of performance so many insiders believed would make this young dynamo a dominant force. She won the Kraft Nabisco, now the ANA Inspiration, launching mammoth drives in a game of bomb-and-gouge usually only witnessed in the men’s game.
“Everyone I know who sees Lexi up close, who sees her play in person, from caddies to PGA Tour pros, says, `Dude, she doesn’t hit it like a girl. She mashes it,’” Nicholas Thompson, the oldest of Lexi’s two brothers, said of the show his sister put on last year. “She amazes people with some of the shots she can hit.”
Stacy Lewis, the best American in the game, knew what was possible when Thompson put it all together.
“As soon as she figures out her putting, she’s going to be unbelievable,” Lewis said before Thompson’s Kraft victory. “She’s hands down the best ball striker on tour.”
Thompson put it all together at Mission Hills, combining power and one of the best putting performances of her career. She needed the virtuoso effort to hold off Wie in a head-to-head Sunday duel with Wie beginning to show she was ready to realize the vast potential in her game. Thompson closed with a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 to win by three shots.
With that major championship title in hand, Thompson looked poised to launch a dominant run, but it didn’t happen. She arrives this week looking for her first victory since last year’s triumph. Though she hasn’t played poorly, picking up seven top-10 finishes over the past year, even Thompson expected more.
“I would say I’m definitely a little surprised that I haven’t won,” Thompson said. “I know my game is very close. I’ve been working really hard on every aspect of my game. My short game, I’ve been practicing hours a day trying to improve.”
Expectations have followed Thompson since she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old and then won her first LPGA title as a 16-year-old. Now 20, she’s a four-time LPGA winner who climbed as high as No. 5 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She’s No. 9 this week.
“Golf is all about being patient,” Thompson said. “You can’t win every week. You just have to go with the same positive mindset. All you can do is try your best.”
Wie, 25, turned the disappointment of losing to Thompson into the best run of her career. In her very next start after the Kraft Nabisco, Wie won the Lotte Championship. Two months later, she broke through to win her first major, putting together every component of her game to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst.
After that Kraft Nabisco loss, Wie’s game came together brilliantly, with the return of her command with her driver and the development of her unusual “table-top” putting stroke. In eight starts after the Kraft, she finished top-10 in seven of them, winning twice and finishing third twice. But a deep bone bruise to the index finger of her right hand derailed most of the rest of her season. She also battled a bad knee last year. She missed almost two months recovering from the finger injury.
“Injuries suck,” Wie said.
With strep throat and a sinus infection impacting the start of this season, Wie hasn’t been the same formidable presence.
In six starts this year, Wie’s best finish is a tie for 24th in the season opener at the Coates Golf Championship.
“I'm a strong believer, and always been a strong believer, that everything happens for a reason,” Wie said. “I learned a lot. I think I learned a lot from last year, just how I approached it. Just from winning and losing, I think you learn from both, equally as much. Definitely, I was fired up after this event last year.”
Wie has been working hard to get the same feeling in her swing that she had at Pinehurst last summer. As part of her pre-shot routine lately, she has been thrusting her left hip outward, in an exaggerated motion, and pumping her downswing from the top. Her swing coach, David Leadbetter, says she’s looking to feel the “lag” that worked so well last year.
“I think that every week it's definitely getting better,” Wie said. “I think just from how I played in Phoenix, and how I played at Kia, just getting back to feeling comfortable. That's really what I've been working on. I just felt like I played a lot better than what my score showed, especially last week. But it's just every week feeling more comfortable and trying to work on things for the long-term, not just for that week.”
Karen Stupples, the 2004 Women’s British Open winner and Golf Channel analyst, can see how Mission Hills could reawaken Wie’s game. This is where Wie first emerged in a large way in the women’s game. As a 13-year-old, Wie played in the final Sunday pairing of the Kraft Nabisco with a chance to win. She tied for ninth, one of her five top-10 finishes here. As a 14-year-old, she finished fourth.
“Michelle Wie would dearly love to win this,” Stupples said. “She's been so close in the past. I think she's just waiting for her game to turn the corner. She hasn't played great this year, but it's going back to familiar ground and a course that she feels comfortable on and she loves. I think that could be the turnaround for her game.”
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin isn’t sure what to expect from Wie this week.
“I have no idea when she's going to play well,” Rankin said. “She might be 25 under at Mission Hills, and I'd be glad to see it, but I don't have a feel for when she'll play well and when she won't. It's somewhat mysterious.”
The ANA Inspiration begins with Thompson and Wie both looking to find the answers that will put them back in position to win their second major. They’re both suited to win at Mission Hills, if they can just find the magic that made last year successful for them.