KPMG Women's PGA Championship: Lexi Thompson finding success with new mindset

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Lexi Thompson wants to put fun back in her game and to not let her happiness be dictated by what happens on the golf course.

CHASKA, Minn. -- Lexi Thompson had already mapped out what she wanted to do with her life by age 5.

"I've always known, 'All right, wake up early, let's go practice and play,'" she told media during her Tuesday news conference at this week's KPMG Women's PGA Championship. "I love it."

Later as a home-schooled student in Florida, she studied online and spent five to eight hours each day working on her golf game with her dad, Scott Thompson. It was during those years and hours of practice that she allowed herself to dream of playing on the LPGA Tour, of winning tournaments and maybe, one day, becoming one of the world's top players.

But now that those dreams have come true, Thompson admits that the one thing she has had to learn in more recent years is perspective.

"I don't really know what I expected when I was 12 years old, what my career was going to look like," Thompson said. "For little girls who want to get involved with the game, I just say have fun with it."

Fun, of course, is that nebulous word that means different things to different people, and fun was not what Thompson found herself having earlier this year.

Typically a gentle, yet strong, young woman who embraces fans and enjoys "reaching out" to her followers on social media, Thompson seemingly got too deeply invested in showing her fans "how [she's] a normal 24-year-old."

In a social medium that largely showcased puppies and pretty pictures of Thompson, she also became a target of political criticism for playing golf this spring with President Donald Trump in South Florida. For Thompson, it was a chance to play golf with the United States president. For the haters, it was something else.

Thompson still engages in social media, but, in her words, she's "not on it like I used to be, checking comments and everything like that," she said.

"I just post and then let it go," Thompson added. "I realize that I just need time for myself and to just really focus on what makes me happy and what I can do to make my game the best."

About a month later, she missed the 36-hole cut at the LPGA's Pure Silk Championship at Kingsmill Resort -- a tournament she won in 2017. She asked her dad if they could go home to Florida to work on her game. It was there that she and her father-coach fine-tuned Thompson's focus to get her back on track.

For seven hours in each of those two days, the focus was where it needed to be -- on her ball striking, on her rhythm, on her short game and returning her thoughts to the same basics that made her want to park herself on a practice range for hours as a tenacious little girl so many years ago.

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Thompson has posted six top-10 finishes this season -- including a win in the ShopRite LPGA Classic -- and has moved into the world No. 2 position.

The payoff for that extra effort was a tie for second at the U.S. Women's Open the next week, followed by her career 11th victory at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, which she won by one stroke with a 20-foot eagle putt on the final hole, and another tie for second last week at the Meijer LPGA Classic -- again, with an eagle putt on the closing hole.

While Thompson has long been a force off the tee, it wasn't until her brother convinced her to try the "claw" grip that her putting has moved into a new gear. That change was made on the Tuesday of this year's U.S. Women's Open, and Thompson hasn't looked back.

"[The claw] takes the right hand out of it," she explained on Tuesday. "Ever since then, I feel so much more comfortable with it and more relaxed over the putt. I think that's what I needed the most."

While there have been some impactful highs and lows in her 2019 season, the Floridian has posted six top-10 finishes -- including a third-place finish at the ANA Inspiration -- and has quietly moved into position as the world's second-ranked player behind Jin Young Ko, ranked No. 1 for 12 weeks.

Thompson enters this week's third major championship with the momentum that she went home and manufactured on the practice range four weeks ago.

And while she waved off media questions about her chance to overtake Ko as the world's top-ranked player, that next big move is a distinct possibility based on the way Thompson is performing.

"Honestly, I don't think about rankings at all," she said. "I know I'm No. 2 right now, but I'm just going into every event wanting to win."

And while her refocused practice and new putting grip have paid off during the past three weeks, Thompson's more mature look at herself as a golfer on the course and as a young woman brimming with confidence off the course has been a distinction she couldn't have imagined so many years ago when she set her path.

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Thompson believes she can win more LPGA events this season. And she just might rise to world No. 1 in the process.

Her approach in 2019 has been to not let her happiness be dictated by what happens on the golf course. And, by her own admission, that's still a work in progress.

"It's been a mindset that I've had to really learn and force myself to get into because it was kind of driving me insane," she said. "[Golf is] just what I do and sometimes I have to tell myself that it's just a game."

Winning a tournament or missing the cut comes with playing professional golf. And if, at season's end, the ebb and flow of her performance becomes her biggest lesson this year, that's just fine with Thompson.

She believes she can win more events. She just might rise to world No. 1. And she is steadily becoming one of the tour's best putters when it matters most.

But more than anything, she wants to put fun back in her game, and that tweaked perspective about golf has given her a new freedom that has allowed the success to happen. If it happens this week, so be it.

"Wherever it takes me, it takes me," she said.

Lisa D. Mickey has covered golf for Golf World, Golf For Women, The New York Times, the U.S. Golf Association, LPGA.com, Virginia Golfer Magazine and for various other publications and websites. She is based in Florida.

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