Despite losing final event, Lexi ends season with $1 million prize, invaluable lessons

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It was a challenging year for Lexi Thompson, both on and off the golf course, but she capped it with a $1 million payday.

NAPLES, Fla. -- If you don't think golf is a fickle game that smiles at you one minute and sneers at you the next -- not necessarily in that order -- the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship was proof of just how fickle it can be.

In fact, it was unanimous-verdict-rendered-in-five-minutes kind of evidence.

When Ariya Jutanugarn hit her opening tee shot Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club so poorly a rank beginner could relate, that was golf.

When Lexi Thompson hit a sublime, 25-yard pitch shot to set up a birdie on the 17th hole, that was golf.

When Jutanugarn birdied four of the last six holes, including Nos. 17 and 18, holing putts from all over southwest Florida, that was golf.

When Thompson missed a 2-foot par putt on No. 18, the ball seemingly scared of going in the cup, that too was golf.

Because the day started with a four-way tie for the lead and 31 players separated by only four strokes -- not to mention season-long races that were coming down to tight finishes requiring good calculators -- it figured to be an intriguing day.

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Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn birdied the last two holes to win the season's final event.

"I've never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies," said Jutanugarn's coach, Gary Gilchrist. "It was unbelievable out there -- birdie after birdie after birdie. The scoreboard went up and down. That's why it's so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. All of them are playing at a phenomenal level of golf. You never know. I thought Lexi had it after she birdied 17, that she'd put a nail in the coffin."

But you do never know, not in this fickle game.

Thompson went to No. 18 leading by one and was on the green of the 425-yard par 4 in regulation. From 60 feet after reading the putt with caddie Kevin McAlpine, she lagged beautifully, cozying her ball two feet left of the hole. So little was left that if Thompson hadn't been worried about stepping in the lines of fellow competitors Austin Ernst and Jessica Korda, she said she would have putted instead of marking.

When it was time, to finish off a tournament and end a trying season in style, there was no reason to call McAlpine over for his opinion. "I just mentioned to her, 'You've got it,' and my job's done," said McAlpine, who didn't watch what happened next.

"It was a short putt. I don't really play break on those," Thompson said. "I don't know. I just had a little mishap in my hands and just pushed it off to the right. I putted great the whole day and did my routine. I guess maybe just a little bit of adrenaline."

In the grandstands and hospitality suites around the 18th green, there were groans and moans and gasps, the soundtrack of a golf wreck.

With Thompson's bogey leaving her in a tie with Jutanugarn and Jessica Korda at 14-under 274, it was left to see if Jutanugarn could win without having to go to a playoff. From 15 feet -- the same distance from which she had birdied No. 17 after making putts more than twice that length for birdies on Nos. 13 and 14 -- Jutanugarn sank it to make extra holes unnecessary.

Not everyone got a trophy, but the wealth was shared.

Jutanugarn collected $500,000 for winning her second tournament of the year and seventh of her career. Despite the blunder on the final hole, Thompson won $1 million for claiming the Race to the CME Globe, the tour's season-long points competition. With a 2017 average of 69.114, she also edged Sung Hyun Park by .113 of a stroke to win the Vare Trophy, named for Glenna Collett Vare, one of the finest golfers in the period before women even played professionally.

For the first time since the award's inception in 1966, Rolex Player of the Year is shared by two golfers, So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, who after a full season of competition were deadlocked in points.

It was that kind of year, that kind of day.

Thompson, 22, would have gone to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings and been Player of the Year for the first time had she won the tournament. Instead, she left with a memory that could gnaw at her if she lets it or become yet another marker in the education of a golfer -- and person -- who has matured in 2017.

She rebounded after the unusual four-stroke penalty at the ANA Inspiration, to rally into a playoff that day and win the Kingsmill Championship little more than a month later. She handled the cancer diagnosis of her mother, Judy, and death of her grandmother, Marie. In a singles match at the Solheim Cup against Anna Nordqvist, she lost the first four holes but rallied with a 7-under 29 on the back nine to halve the match.

"It's probably the most I've learned in any year," said Thompson, who won her first LPGA event at 16. "Probably just never give up. No matter what you're put through, you can always push through, you can always push through anything if you go through it with the right attitude and just keep pushing forward. Not going to lie and say some things didn't really get me down. And I struggled, but I had to keep on moving on, keep on practicing, keeping on training, because I knew I had the talent had to show that."

With all the awards that were handed out, followed by pictures, the ceremony on the 18th green took a long time. Nordqvist stood there the whole time waiting by Thompson's golf bag for a chance to talk to her. The two players had been on stage together Thursday night, reliving the drama of their Solheim match. You go through that kind of battle, there is a bond. Nordqvist politely declined to talk to a reporter about what Thompson had done on 18. She had known the pain of an odd, disappointing finish herself at the 2016 U.S. Women's Open, when her club brushed a couple of grains of sand in a bunker, the violation caught by the super zoom of a TV camera.

What Nordqvist probably would have said about the mystery of those 24 inches that couldn't be successfully navigated is what Thompson did say later.

"I don't really know what happened there," Thompson said. "It just happens. I guess it's golf."

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