07 Jun 2021 | Feature stories | Professional golf |

CLAYTON: Lexi part of favourites' folklore

by Mike Clayton

Lexi Thompson's caddie consoles her as she walks from the 72nd green and a costly bogey.
Lexi Thompson's caddie consoles her as she walks from the 72nd green and a costly bogey.

It’s easy to blame Jack Fleck. Or Billy Casper, Scott Simpson or even Lee Janzen.

Ben Hogan seemed assured of winning a record-breaking fifth US Open in 1955 when he was around the difficult Olympic Club in San Francisco in 287; seven over the par.

Fleck, back on the 15th tee, still needed a couple of birdies and a couple of pars to tie. Yet he got to the clubhouse in the requisite 14 shots and won the playoff the next day.

Eleven years later, America’s golf darling, Arnold Palmer, was seven ahead of Billy Casper as they stood on the 10th tee. Casper was 32 home and Palmer carded 39 before the former won the playoff the next day.

Palmer was the second best player in the game and just 36 years old, but he never won another major championship.

In 1987, Scott Simpson beat Tom Waston, then, 11 years later, Lee Janzen prevailed by a single shot over Payne Stewart.

By now, Olympic had cemented its reputation as the graveyard of the favoured sons of American golf.

Of recent times the US Women’s Open has been ruled by Asian-born players – 11 of the past 14 winners shows just how dominating they have been – and extraordinarily, nine have been from South Korea.

When Lexi Thompson, likely the most popular and recognisable of the home players, came to the 10th tee on Sunday, her lead was five shots and there was surely enough space between her and the rest that the walk home would be something of a procession.

But, like Palmer 55 years ago, the back-nine dream turned into a nightmare. She drove left into the long grass at the 11th, gouged an iron up short of the green and then chunked a chip. Three from the edge and it was an unnecessary double-bogey. Five would have hurt a bit but nothing like the doubt brought on by a six right at the wrong time.

Importantly, it encouraged the others – Yuka Saso from the Philippines, Nasa Hataoka, the Japanese, American Megan Khang and Shanshan Feng, of China.

If you compared the techniques of these four with Thompson, you’d find a stark difference in form. Khang a fabulous looking player sure to win more and the three Asians have swings as trustworthy as your favourite babysitter.

Athletic talent is perhaps measurable and we all think we know it when we see it. Thompson would qualify as one with more than her fair share. Greg Norman, too. Tiger Woods, absolutely. Off the proverbial charts.

Thompson had the lead on the 16th tee and given she faced one of America’s more difficult par-5s followed by another barely more than a long par-4 and then a drive and pitch to finish, she should have been able to get to the clubhouse with her one-shot lead intact. It wasn’t as though she had to emulate Fleck’s birdies to finish.

The 17th with its fairway sliding steeply from left to right and a second shot playing uphill was playing at barely more than 400m. Despite that, it was judged to be a par-5. For someone of Thompson’s power, five should have been a given and a four better than a 50-50 proposition.

Instead, she missed the fairway left, played the obligatory gouged wedge out of the long grass, and then left a short iron – one she thought was all over the flag – short of the green. Bogey.

The finisher at Olympic is unusually short for a par-4, but it’s perhaps the sort of hole we should see more of at the end of a championship. Big, burly par-4s aren’t the only way to expose nerves and technique.

The fairway looked barely wider than the walking path coming off the tee and, needing a par to tie, Thompson hit it with a long iron before dumping a short iron into the front bunker.

Ballesteros, Player, Von Nida or Fowler (Peter not Rickie) might have got close from there, but most wouldn’t and so it was.

A 15-footer for par coming back down the hill was a putt only a few might have made and leaving it short was not the great crime many thought. The crime was having the putt for a four and not a three.

Saso and Hataoka were left to decide the championship and we saw methods likely to ensure their owners are likely to be at the top of the game for some time. Both parred the 9th and then the 18th – with Saso making a terrific return putt from six feet – before heading back to the 9th.

There, the Filipino drove left into the rough but not so far from the green that she couldn’t get a wedge on. It bounced up within 10 feet of the hole and down went the slinging right to left putt – putts more difficult than they look, especially in the circumstances.

Saso has clearly based her swing on Rory McIlroy’s and the Northern Irishman might even joke right now that she is using her Rory swing better than he is. Suffice to say, any swing emulating the principles of McIlroy is bound to be pretty good.

Thompson, on the other hand, has her own move – one capable of playing brilliant golf – but she will head home from California with questions in need of answers. She could perhaps blame hitting the wrong clubs into the final two greens, but that might be papering over something more important.

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