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With her smile back, Lexi Thompson is out to script a happier ending to the CME

Lexi Thompson at the 2018 CME Group Tour Championship
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NAPLES, Fla. – Lexi Thompson returns Sunday to script a happier ending to the CME Group Tour Championship.

Her old, slinging draw is back.

So is the Bettinardi Queen Bee 6 model putter she was so comfortable winning with earlier in her career.

“Back to old faithful with everything,” Thompson said.

Maybe most important of all, her smile is back.

Thompson is thriving in a cocoon of family, friends and fans just two hours from where she grew up on the east coast of Florida.

“It means the world to me to come here to Naples and play in front of them,” Thompson said. “Whether I do good or bad, they are always there supporting me.”

She’s also comfortable with her brother, Curtis, on her bag as caddie this week.

“He keeps me nice and relaxed,” Thompson said. “He’s always cracking jokes.”

Following a 4-under-par 68 Saturday, Thompson is poised to end a frustrating year on a high note. She is positioned to win an event that so painfully slipped away from her a year ago, when she missed a 2-foot putt in a gut-wrenching finish that cost her a chance to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award  and ascend to world No. 1, both for the first time. She looks ready to make sure this isn’t her first winless year since her rookie season, back in 2012. 

At 16 under overall, Thompson is three shots ahead of Nelly Korda (67) in what is shaking out as a head-to-head, All-American finish. Carlota Ciganda (69) will fill out the final group, but she is six shots back.

 Thompson is 23, Korda 20. “I think it will be exciting,” Korda said.

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Thompson is within range of breaking the CME Group Tour Championship’s 72-hole scoring record. Charley Hull set the mark at 19 under here at Tiburon Golf Club in 2016.

“I feel, overall, very comfortable with this golf course,” Thompson said.

Thompson took a month off this summer to work on herself, announcing she needed a break to focus on building a life that is about more than just golf. She’s doing that with the help of therapists, and apparently she’s still doing a lot of good work on her game.

With her big draw fully sculpted again, she’s bombing her way round Tiburon, but with more than that bomb-and-gouge style of play that helped her become the dominant American in the women’s game.

“Playing it smart out here,” Thompson said.

Brittany Lincicome is seeing that. She watched Thompson take the lead from her late in the second round.

“She has learned course management a lot better,” Lincicome said. “Before, when we were rookies, it was just rip it and grip it; hit driver everywhere.”

Through 54 holes, Thompson has been a ball-striking dynamo. She has hit 51 of 54 greens. She has hit 38 of 42 fairways. And she has made just a single bogey.

“She’s playing really well,” Korda said. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

Korda broke through to win her first LPGA title in Taiwan three weeks ago. Like Thompson, Korda is feeling at home in Florida this week. She grew up in the Bradenton area with sister Jessica, who grew up playing junior golf with Thompson.

“I'm used to the bermuda grass and just very comfortable,” Korda said.

Korda battled through her own disappointment this year. She won in Taiwan eight months after losing a heartbreaker in Singapore, when a birdie putt curled away at the final hole, leaving her dejected.

What did she learn in Taiwan that will help her Sunday in Naples?

“Just to relax,” Korda said. “Anything can happen.”

Thompson can attest to that, as she seeks a better memory to a Sunday finish in Naples.