SAN FRANCISCO — Lexi Thompson kept her AirPods in her ears until the first player in her group, Megha Ganne, stepped up to hit her opening drive Sunday at the United States Women’s Open.
Thompson, who started the final round at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course with a one-stroke lead, was bidding to win her second career major title, and her first since 2014. With a victory, she would break a 10-major winless streak by American women. With so much at stake, she wanted to wall herself off from all the noise.
For 16 holes, Thompson quieted all her doubts and drew strength from the fans willing her toward a win. But her championship hopes faded with a bogey-bogey finish that left her outside of a playoff between Yuka Saso of the Philippines and Nasa Hataoka of Japan.
Thompson closed her final round with a four-over 75 and a 72-hole total of three-under 281, one stroke higher than Saso (73) and Hataoka, who produced a 68, her best round of the tournament. After both parred the first two aggregate playoff holes (Nos. 9 and 18), Saso birdied the third hole, the first of sudden death, to win her first major two weeks before her 20th birthday.
Speaking while the playoff was getting underway, Thompson said, “I just wanted to come out today and play my game like I have the last few days.”
Thompson, whose Sunday score was nine strokes higher than her third-round 66, added, “Just got a few bad breaks, but that’s golf.”
Thompson, 26, knew the final round was going to be a nervy game of musical holes.
For her to be the last one standing when the holes ran out, she was going to have to break with venerable Olympic Club tradition. Webb Simpson rallied from four strokes off the lead to win the men’s Open in 2012. Lee Janzen came from five back to win here in 1998. Arnold Palmer frittered away a seven-stroke advantage on the final nine in 1966, then lost a playoff to Billy Casper, who birdied four of his final holes. Scott Simpson, no relation to Webb, closed with a 68 to pass Tom Watson in 1987.
Thompson’s lead was like a rubber band. It stretched to five strokes after nine. And it snapped back to one with three holes remaining after Thompson made a double bogey at No. 11 and a bogey at No. 14 while Hataoka, 22, playing in the group directly ahead of her, went on a Casper-esque charge with birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 15. Saso gained three strokes on Thompson on the 16th and 17th, both par 5s, drawing even with her at four under after she birdied both and Thompson went par-bogey.
Before her U.S. Open debut in 2019 in Charleston, S.C., Ganne, a 17-year-old amateur, played a practice round with Thompson. She closed out this Open by conjuring a dream into action, playing in the final group alongside Thompson and Saso.
A high school junior from Holmdel, N.J., Ganne joined an august list of amateurs to have graced the lead grouping on the final day of a women’s major. The list includes Aree Song, Michelle Wie West, Morgan Pressel — who called Sunday’s action from the broadcasting booth — and Catherine Lacoste, who in 1967 became the first amateur to win.
What’s past was prologue; the last time a U.S. Open was held at Olympic Club, a 17-year-old amateur also began the final round lurking four strokes off the lead, as did Ganne. That teenage interloper was Beau Hossler, who struggled to a 76 and finished tied for 29th.
Ganne hit her drive on the par-5 first into deep rough, leading to her first double bogey of the tournament. It was a harbinger of the grind that was ahead for Ganne, who closed with a 77 to finish tied for 14th, one stroke ahead of the next-best amateur, Maja Stark of Sweden.
“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” Ganne said.
The day was no breeze for Thompson, who was battling history’s headwinds. A U.S.-born woman hadn’t won a major since Angela Stanford at the 2018 Evian Championship, and in the five men’s Opens held at the Olympic Club, none of the 54-hole leaders held on to win.
And then there was Thompson’s personal travails in the majors. Since winning the 2014 ANA Inspiration, she had endured several near misses, posting eight top-five finishes, including a playoff defeat at the 2017 ANA Inspiration after a television viewer’s observation led to a four-stroke penalty being tacked to her score on the final day.
Through it all, she preserved traces of the playful, unaffected 12-year-old who qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. They were there in her good-luck ladybug earrings, which she wore on Sunday, and her willingness to engage with younger players like Ganne.
Pro is a little word that can pack a bite far deeper than its breadth, and Thompson, who shed her amateur status in 2010, at age 15, was not immune to the loneliness, the self-doubts, the tedium of spending months away from home and the rootlessness of living out of a suitcase that come with playing for pay. Bright-eyed amateurs see only the blessings: the supportive fans, the immaculate courses, the fine clubhouse dining.
And so if she was to get back to her playful, unaffected teenage self, Thompson needed to redirect her focus so that she viewed golf as play and not as work. She enlisted the help of a psychologist based in Florida, John Denney, with whom she had worked early in her career, and their conversations, which they have several times a week, have helped her flip the switch. From feeling anxiety or anguish to gratitude. From feeling burdened by pressure to blessed by opportunities.
Thompson walked the walk. She forced a smile as she exited the 18th green after her approach, from 109 yards, found a bunker, and after she blasted out to 12 feet and left the par putt short.
Thompson’s eyes welled with tears and her voice quavered. She smiled wanly and said, “Yeah, I played not so good today with a few of the bogeys coming in on the back nine.
She added, “I’ll take today and I’ll learn from it and have a lot more weeks ahead, a lot more years.”