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Lexi, Bubba bomb way to season's first majors

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"Dude, if I could tell you, I would, because I'm sick and tired of being on the sidelines. I want to start competing against these boys. I miss it." – during a 30-minute range session at his charity event, Tiger Jam, when asked when he will return to competition  - 

If her shoes weren’t tied tightly, Lexi Thompson might come out of them making that powerful swing of hers.

It’s a signature move, that tippy-toe finish, where all the torque she creates fuels her feet's liftoff at impact, like a rocket leaving Cape Canaveral.

“I get a little airborne,” Thompson says.

At 6 feet tall, with her wide arc and a full-shoulder turn that reaches past parallel, the 19-year-old unleashes tremendous club-head speed. She put it all on display winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she pounded her driver with impunity, hitting it just about every chance she got on the way to her first major championship title.

“She hit the ball so well, it was unreal,” says Jim McLean, Thompson’s swing coach.

The LPGA is back in action this week at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii, but Thompson will be taking the week off as she remains aglow in the aftermath of her breakthrough major. She plays a lot of events, and there’s a run of regular events now leading into a super-heated summer of more majors.

Notably, Thompson is part of a bigger story in the game this spring.

With Bubba Watson winning the Masters bombing big drives a week after Thompson did the same thing winning Kraft, the start of the year’s majors feels as if it’s all about the long ball. The biggest hitters in the men’s and women’s games claimed the year’s first majors.

Thompson leads the LPGA in driving distance, averaging 274.6 yards per drive.

Watson leads the PGA Tour in driving distance, averaging 315.4 yards per drive.

Lexi Thompson and Bubba Watson

It’s funny, but they share a lot in common in all the power they generate. Nobody taught them how to hit it long. Well, nobody beyond their fathers, who never considered themselves “swing coaches” in any formal sense. Thompson and Watson both grew up without coaches.

After putting a golf club in his son’s hands for the first time, Gerry Watson offered Bubba some simple advice.

“My dad told me to hit it as hard as I can, and then we’ll figure out the rest,” Bubba once said.

Watson, 35, is a marvel of the modern swing. He hits shots the way Johnny Coltrane blew improvisational genius through his saxophone. He takes pride in the fact he honed his swing all on his own.

“I’ve never had a swing coach, never had a lesson,” Watson said. “So, it’s all slap cuts, I guess you could say, with my driver.”

Like Watson, Thompson got her start with her father, Scott, giving her the basics and then giving her the freedom to allow her natural gifts to flow through them.

Scott didn’t have to tell his daughter to hit the ball hard. He sent her out on the course with her older brothers, Nicholas and Curtis. She learned to hit it hard watching them, swinging like them. Nicholas is one of the best drivers in professional golf. He was 13th in total driving on the PGA Tour last year. He was first in total driving on the Tour the year before that. He was third on the PGA Tour in total driving in ’08.

Curtis, who plays at LSU, is the longest hitter in the family.

Thompson and Watson aren’t just long. They can be uncannily accurate, given how far they hit it. When Watson won the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, he led the field in driving distance while finishing eighth in driving accuracy. Rolex world No. 3 Stacy Lewis says Thompson is “hands down” the best ball striker in the women’s game.

Thompson and Watson share something else in common. Their footwork isn’t classic sheet music for the golf swing.

Watson’s alignment mechanism is a golf mystery. It’s like he is the only one who knows true north in his setup. His feet shift and shuffle like Fred Astaire’s, but there’s no denying the athleticism in his move.

Thompson’s footwork is distinctly her own, also. While she grew up without a coach, she has one now. She has worked with McLean for the last five years.

“We did a lot of work on her short game, her wedges, and we look at her swing plane, but we’ve mainly tried to keep the swing that she brought to us,” McLean said. “Her footwork, the way she pulls up off the ground, that was something her father, Scott, asked about when we started working together. I said ‘We’re keeping that.’ It’s something she’s done since she was a little girl in trying to it hit it as far as she can. I like that move, and it’s not something I was going to train her out of.”

McLean, who has one of the greatest video libraries of golf swings in the game, says Thompson’s liftoff at impact isn’t as uncommon as people think among gifted drivers of the golf ball. He says there’s some liftoff in Louis Oosthuizen’s swing, in Patrick Reed’s and in a young Davis Love III’s swing. Of course, Laura Davies features the most pronounced liftoff in the women’s game.

And while Greg Norman didn’t have that same move, he had his own unique footwork, an unconventional slide that helped make him one of the great drivers of all time.

“I’m biased, but when Lexi is hitting it good, nobody hits it better in the women’s game,” McLean said.