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Lexi goes long: 300-plus driving average leads to 68

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Somebody check Lexi Thompson’s golf bag.

Is there a sledgehammer in there?

Thompson walloped her way through all the pressure, scrutiny and painful memories waiting for her at the opening tee Thursday at the ANA Inspiration.

She blew through it all, putting up a 4-under-par 68 to move into early contention to win an event she lost in such devastating fashion a year ago. She is just three shots off the lead.

Thompson left no doubt she’s on a mission.

At the third hole, she hammered her drive 348 yards, rocketing it 72 yards past her fellow competitor, Michelle Wie.

There seemed to be a message in that titanic blast.

“I’ve never seen a ball down there,” said Golf Channel’s Judy Rankin, who has been playing and broadcasting this championship for 40 some years.

Thompson literally dizzied Wie.

“I had the mad spins out there,” Wie said. “I just got really dizzy.”

Wie, who shot 75, said she didn’t know what caused her dizzy spells, but she joked she might have been suffering from altitude sickness, because of her height. It was Thompson, however, who took her game to another stratosphere.

Thompson was six shots ahead of Wie six holes into the round.

“I love coming here,” Thompson said.

She loves it despite the pain this place brought her last year, when she was hit with four penalty shots in that controversial final round.

Thompson said she still has nightmares about how that Sunday a year ago ended, with a viewer email leading to a two-shot penalty for a ball she improperly marked on Saturday and another two-shot penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard.

“I’ve relived it for a while,” she said shortly after returning this week.

Full scoring from the ANA Inspiration

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The nightmare might be everybody else’s in this field the rest of the week.

“This golf course definitely sets up for my game off the tee,” Thompson said. “I get to just aim up the right and fire away.

Thompson was back in a bomb-and-gouge mode typically only seen in the men’s game. She averaged 327 yards per drive in the first round. She hit only seven of 14 fairways, but it didn’t matter. She wedged her way to 14 greens in regulation, and she was back in form with her putter.

That’s the attacking game plan that won Thompson this event four years ago, and nearly won it again last year.

Given all the pressure Thompson faced in her return Thursday, she was more than sturdy in her start. She was resolute and unwavering, until a bogey at the last, her only one of the day.

Thompson said she was playing the best golf of her life when she got hit with those penalties here last year. She wasn’t far from that again Thursday.

When she got in trouble at the seventh, driving it in the trees, she coolly pitched back into play, wedged to 20 feet and holed the putt for par.

The fans rooted on Thompson every step of the way, just as they did a year ago, after news of the penalties hit.

“I played really well today,” Thompson. “So, just going to take that into the next three days.”