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Surrounded by friends and family, Lexi finds her smile, wins CME

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NAPLES, Fla. – Lexi Thompson unofficially led the field in smiles this week.

If you’re a Thompson fan, that might be the most important stat from her tour-de-force performance winning the CME Group Tour Championship on Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

That smile wasn’t always easy to muster in a year of internal struggle on and off the golf course, but Thompson sent a big message flashing it at just about every turn in the final round. An emotionally challenging year ended with giddy joy.

“Just very special,” Thompson said. “How I came back, just through the long year and struggling a bit. ... Having this kind of finish helped me out a lot.”

Thompson made her 10th career LPGA victory something special, hoisting the trophy on Tiburon’s 18th green. Yes, she won the Race to the CME Globe’s $1 million bonus here last year and secured the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, but she lost a lot here, too. A missed 2-foot putt at the final hole cost her the tournament, a chance to ascend to Rolex world No. 1 for the first time and to win her first Rolex Player of the Year Award.

If there were any demon memories lying in wait for Thompson this week, she slayed them all.

“How it ended last year wasn't the way I wanted,” Thompson said. “The $1 million helped, but I wanted to win.”

So she came back and did just that. She won in a four-shot runaway.

“It's been a long year,” Thompson said. “Just the ups and downs, and just the things I've been dealing with, they all kind of hit me this year. 

“To be able to end the year like this, and just keep on fighting throughout the whole year, has meant the world to me. Just shows anything is possible. You have to fight through whatever you're going through.”

With a 2-under-par 70, Thompson held off Nelly Korda (71) to avoid her first winless season since her rookie year. She won for the sixth consecutive season.

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

About all those smiles . . .

There was a lot of good shot making to enjoy. Thompson led the field in greens in regulation (63 of 72), was second in driving distance (266.3), and she made a load of birdie putts; but it was more than that.

Thompson, 23, was wrapped in a cocoon of loving support in her home state, just two hours from where she grew up on the east coast of South Florida. She had her mother, father, grandmother and uncle in the gallery, along with a small army of friends and loyal fans. She had her pet puppy, Leo, waiting to greet her after every round. Notably, she also had her brother, Curtis, on her bag as caddie.

“He kind of saved me,” Lexi said. “He's such a goofball. He's a one-of-a-kind personality, and I just love him so much, and just how much he helped me out this week. I needed that.”

Lexi said Curtis delivered an assortment of movie lines from “The Hangover,” “Wedding Crashers” and “Step Brothers.”

The week was medicinal.

Back in July, Thompson surprised the women’s tour when she announced she was skipping the Ricoh Women’s British Open and taking a month off to address some personal struggles. She bared her soul upon her return, explaining how the heartaches of 2017 impacted her more than she let anyone see. She opened her heart about being a former teen phenom obsessed with the game, and how she needed to build a life about more than golf.

“It all kind of hit me this year, and just kind of got me really down,” Thompson said. “I needed that time off to be with my family, to figure out things that made me happy off the golf course.”

More than once upon her return, Thompson has acknowledged working with therapists.

“Golf is my life,” she said. “It's who I am, but it’s just what I do. I'm coming to realize that. ... There is so much to life other than that, my family and my friends and just loving every bit of that, and just being grateful for what I have.”

Thompson couldn’t stop smiling thinking about it all in the celebratory aftermath.