Lexi Thompson is Olympic's Latest Victim
A collapse for the ages allows Yuka Saso to take an unforgettable Women’s Open
SAN FRANCISCO — The wrong player always wins at the Olympic Club. Famously, Fleck over Hogan and Casper conquering Palmer. More recent national championships at Olympic have also been where sentimentality goes to die: Scott Simpson thwarting Tom Watson; brooding Lee Janzen overtaking charismatic Payne Stewart; young upstart Webb Simpson preventing Jim Furyk from punching his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
As Lexi Thompson teed off on Sunday morning for the final round of the 76th U.S. Women’s Open, you could practically see the ghosts swirling in the cypress trees, to say nothing of her assorted mental gremlins. Thompson is a star of such magnitude her last name is now optional, but she’s also a wounded champion whose very public failures have only increased her connection with the fans. Judging by the roar on the first tee, she was undoubtedly the people’s choice. On Saturday, Thompson had grabbed the tournament by the throat with one of the most electric rounds in recent major championship history, a 5-under 66 that was the lowest (and only bogey-free) round of the week. But for all of her prodigious physical gifts Thompson, 26, is not known as a closer. Her lone victory in a major came way back at the 2014 Dinah Shore and 13 unfulfilling top-10s have followed. She has never won an LPGA playoff, and her blown 2-footer on the final hole to lose the 2017 Tour Championship is enduring nightmare fuel. The last of her 11 LPGA victories came in 2019.
But over the first five holes of the final round, Thompson seemed to exorcise Olympic’s demons, and her own. She smashed a drive down the fairway of the par-5 first hole and then, from 223 yards out, rifled a long iron that never left the flag, leading to a tap-in birdie. At the third she brushed in a ticklish 15-footer to save par. After hooking her drive on 5 into a gnarly lie in the rough, Thompson slashed a shot well short and right of the green, but her ball took a fortuitous hop and rode the course’s oft-maddening contours to within kick-in distance. Just like that her lead had ballooned to five strokes. Thompson’s reaction was telling: hearty laughter. She had talked all week about a new mental approach that focused on gratitude, and at long last she seemed at peace after a lifetime of being oppressed by expectations and hyperbole. It felt as if Thompson was going to stroll to victory in an overdue coronation. But ask the King how that works out around Olympic: Arnold Palmer led Billy Casper by seven strokes with nine holes to play at the 1966 U.S. Open before coming undone.
Thompson’s unraveling began on the 11th hole, when a scoop-chunk from in front of the green led to a double bogey. The ghosts of Olympic stirred. Another soft bogey on 14 cut the lead to two strokes. While Thompson was retreating, Nasa Hataoka, a terrific 22-year-old from Japan, birdied 7, 9, 13 and 14 on the strength of sizzling iron play. Then, with Thompson watching from the 16th fairway, Hataoka gutted another birdie putt to move within a stroke. Lexi followed with a strong approach but missed a 6-footer for birdie on the low side. Yuka Saso, playing alongside Thompson in the final group, had gone double-double on the second and third holes; that’s a good order at In-N-Out but a tasty way to blow an Open. However, the 19-year-old who grew up in the Philippines played exceedingly scrappy golf the rest of the way, fueled by a series of unlikely up-and-downs. Saso stuffed her approach on 16 and suddenly she was only two back.
The uphill par-5 17th was playing a mere 441 yards on Sunday. Thompson remains a premiere power player but she squandered the advantage by hooking her drive one step into the rough. She hacked back into the fairway and then left a short iron woefully short of the green. From 20 yards out she elected to putt, like a 20-handicapper fearful of duffing a chip shot. She did well to leave herself a 4-footer, but on the ensuing par putt it looked like she had left the head cover on. Bogey. (Palmer’s crucial 7-footer on the same green had expired one inch short.) When Saso got up and down out of a greenside bunker for birdie, there was a three-way tie at the top.
The action moved to the short, fiddly 18th hole, where Hogan lost his playoff to Fleck after a wild drive. He later said his foot slipped, a rare excuse from a man whose brand was rugged accountability.
Both Saso and Hataoka, with their textbook swings, made nerveless pars. Thompson’s action is a wild homemade concoction, with her ponytail flying and various limbs akimbo as she tries to time her ferocious downswing. She finagled a drive into the 18th fairway but her approach fell out of the sky like a wounded bird and into the cavernous front bunker. A sweet recovery left Thompson with a do-or-die 10-footer. More than a half-century earlier Palmer had faced an eerily similar putt, also needing it to force a playoff. Up on the hill, having just signed their scorecards, Jack Nicklaus and Dave Marr looked on. “If he misses this,” Nicklaus said of the King, “there goes the rule.”
Palmer, the winner of seven major championships to that point, was acutely aware of what was at stake. Years later, he opened a vein to Sports Illustrated about what it feels like to have to make a shortish putt with an Open hanging in the balance: “I remember looking at that putt and thinking, ‘Everything is on the line here. My pride. My business. My livelihood.’ And there I was making it even harder.”
Thompson doesn’t sit astride a throne the way Palmer did, but this Open already felt like a crossroads for a player who teed it up in her first national championship at the age of 12. Lexi’s love-hate relationship with the game goes back years. A win here would have propelled her triumphantly into the second act of her career. Blowing this Open would be a brutal setback for a player who has already battled ennui. With so much weight on one putt, no wonder Thompson’s blade looked as heavy as an anvil. Her putt expired a foot short, the ball glistening in the sun, mocking her. Lexi had staggered home in 41 strokes. (Palmer needed 39.)
Saso and Hataoka played on, into extra holes. Saso said her stomach hurt from the magnitude of the moment, but she ate a banana before the playoff to settle it. Even in the biggest moment of her golfing life she displayed admirable sportsmanship, kicking her leg in the air as if to push Hataoka’s putt into the cup on the first extra hole. “Well, I just don’t want to be selfish,” she said afterward. “Everyone here is a great player. If it’s their time, it’s their time. If it’s my time, it’s my time. I just want to cheer everybody.”
Saso’s gorgeous, flowing action has been compared to Rory McIlroy’s, and she often watches his highlights for inspiration as much as information. But after burying a curling 15-footer on the third extra hole she is now years ahead of her idol when it comes to winning major championships. Afterward she couldn’t stop staring at her new trophy. “Yeah, I can’t believe my name is going to be here,” she said.
Saso is a special player with an ebullient personality and an infectious smile. She will be a credit to the game and hopefully she can build on this win. But despite her brilliance, this Open will always be remembered as the one that Thompson lost. It hurts, but she is now part of the long, epic story of proud champions who have had their hearts crushed at Olympic. With enough time — and perhaps more victories — hopefully Thompson can acquire the perspective of Palmer, who was always defined by his failures as much as his triumphs. “The losses aren’t so bad,” he said decades after his Olympic disappointment. “I mean, without them, I think there’d be a void in my life.”