RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lexi Thompson twirled her Bettinardi Queen Bee putter as if it were a favorite baton as she left the 10th green Saturday at Mission Hills.
She had just rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt there.
It was where she started taking command at the ANA Inspiration, making a third consecutive birdie.
At 13 under overall, Thompson leads the year’s first major going into Sunday.
Her 5-under-par 67 pushed her two shots ahead of Suzann Pettersen (68) and three ahead of Inbee Park (68), So Yeon Ryu (69) and Minjee Lee (68).
Thompson is loving that Queen Bee putter and what all her work with it is doing in her run to win this championship again.
Nobody’s going to be hanging that putter in a tree anytime soon.
If you want to know how far Thompson’s putting has come, ask her about the tree outside John Fry’s home on his private course, The Institute, in California. That’s John Fry of Fry’s Electronics, who was host to Lexi and her family as she played the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle last summer.
Thompson was so frustrated with her putting at the national championship, she used a different putter in every round.
With the tension building that week, Lexi’s father, Scott, thought it was time to loosen things up going into Sunday’s final round. So he got some help hanging all four of the putters in a tree outside Fry’s home, for Lexi to see as she left the house on her way to the course.
“We got her to laugh,” Scott said.
Thompson experimented a lot with her putting last year, even putting with her eyes closed. She devoted her offseason to honing a dependable stroke, but she didn’t have to change putters.
Thompson put that Bettinardi Queen Bee in her bag last July and she hasn’t parted with it since.
“That’s a long time for me, the way I was going with putters,” Thompson said. “Absolutely love this putter, just the way it sets up and just the way I stroke it.”
Thompson is looking awfully comfortable making her way around Mission Hills again.
It’s as if she’s playing in her backyard, as if she owns this place and wants to turn Poppie’s Pond into her own swimming pool again.
Thompson is rocking her driver with impunity, just like she did when she won here three years ago, when she played a game of bomb and gouge nobody could touch. She averaged 301 yards per drive Saturday. She leads the field in driving distance (289.5) for the week.
It’s more than that, though.
Thompson has a combination of power and touch working for her.
Through the offseason, she went to work on her putting like never before. She worked, worked, worked to try to tame the stroke, to make the putter a tool she would fight less and love more.
“I felt really good about it coming into the season,” Thompson said.
Aside from a missed 4-footer for par at the fourth, Thompson was solid on the greens.
“It’s all confidence,” said Scott, her father. “She’s built her confidence with all the work, and it’s only going to get better. It hasn’t gotten as good as it’s going to get.”
Thompson hit 9 of 14 fairways Saturday, but the misses didn’t seem to matter.
She attacked anyway, gouging herself out of any trouble she got into. She hit every green in regulation. Even when she looked stymied at the 13th, after missing wide right, she punched under and between the trees there, brilliantly running her approach onto the green.
When Thompson won in ’14, she took a share of the lead with Michelle Wie into the final round. They pulled away from everyone else, but Thompson pulled away from Wie, winning by three shots.
While Wie played for position that Sunday, hitting 3-woods into fairways, Thompson overpowered the course.
Thompson’s doing it again.
“I'm playing it the same way, drivers a lot out there,” Thompson said.
Thompson hit drivers on 12 of 14 holes when she won here three years ago. She isn’t hitting quite as many drivers, but she’s hitting a lot of them.
“That's what I love most about it,” Thompson said. “I usually just aim up the right side of the fairway and just hit a baby draw out there.”
At the 11th, Thompson hammered a drive Golf Channel estimated at 330 yards. She split the fairway with it. She followed that up carving a 7-iron from 200 yards to the middle of the green and two-putted for birdie.
Thompson wouldn’t let herself look too far ahead when asked if she’s thinking about another leap into Poppie’s Pond, but if she stays hot with the driver and putter . . .
“With golf, you never want to get ahead of yourself,” Thompson said. “You never know what can happen. It’s always something we imagine as golfers, jumping into Poppies Pond, but we'll see what tomorrow will bring.”