Lexi Thompson, with a three-shot win over Michelle Wie at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, sucked all the drama out of her final pairing with the popular Stanford grad in the closing round of the season’s first major.
With each player going for her first major title after starting Sunday tied at 10-under, it was Thompson who took another step in her short but stellar career and the leap into Poppie’s Pond, leaving her final-round playing partner still searching for her maiden grand slam victory.
"I’ve worked my life to win a major," the 19-year-old told Golf Channel after finishing with a bogey-free, 4-under 68 to get to 14-under for the week.
All kudos to Thompson, who seems to make history each time she steps onto a golf course. At 12, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Thompson turned pro shortly after leading her U.S. Curtis Cup team to victory in 2010 and was, at 16, the youngest player to win an LPGA event (15-year-old Lydia Ko broke the age barrier a year later), before petitioning the tour for membership and earning an age-limit waiver.
Thompson carded two additional tour Ws before sealing the deal on Sunday in Rancho Mirage. But, in a turnaround from days of yore, it was Wie for whom many golf fans were cheering in Sunday’s finale.
"All eyes are always trained on Michelle Wie, whether she plays well or she plays poorly," Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin said during Thompson’s determined march to victory.
For sure, the heavyweight bout the pairing promised never materialized, as Thompson landed one knockout blow after another and Wie was unable to pick herself up off the canvas. A birdie at the first for Thompson soon became three birds in the first five holes as her opponent managed par, birdie, bogey and went three-down, and the rout was on.
"Lexi just played amazing today. It was a struggle to catch up to her all day," said Wie after carding a 71. "She hit the ball the best I’ve ever seen her hit it and she made everything ... just couldn’t catch up to her."
Wie, who made just two bogeys in her first three rounds, had three on Sunday, after missing some short putts down the stretch.
"I got to a point where I think I just tried too hard to make birdies and I was forcing everything," she said. "I wanted to make those putts so badly that I think I just forced it a little too much."
From the get-go, it was really all Thompson, who took advantage of her strength and length and aggressively hit driver whenever possible, knocking it an average of 278 yards off the tee.
She also had her flat stick working, needing just 29 putts on Sunday.
"I drove it pretty well this week," she said, "but I did make a few good putts."
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Wie’s history who did not feel for the golfer, as a young girl destined to be the next Tiger Woods, as she put her arm over Thompson’s shoulder on their way to the 18th green, well, it’s a good bet you have no soul.
Wie’s story has been endlessly chronicled -- from her explosion, at age 10, onto the golf stage, to questionable decisions about playing in PGA Tour events and critics blasting her for failing to live up to her potential. Also well documented was how the LPGA Tour rookie came into her own as a debatable pick by captain Beth Daniel for the 2009 Solheim Cup squad and went undefeated (3-0-1).
Urged on by Christina Kim, Wie made long-lasting friends of her teammates, won over new fans, and had the time of her life. In her boffo appearance on Golf Channel’s "Feherty" in 2012, The Big Wiesy proved to be a young woman at ease with herself and clearly enjoying life outside the ropes.
Naysayers continued to question the influence of Wie’s parents, her swing, her ever-changing putting method, and her commitment to the game. Like Woods, she went to Stanford, but unlike the current world No. 1, she was undeterred from earning her degree, much to the chagrin of her critics.
Wie graciously responded to those who wondered about her motives and, thanks to some degree to a solid start to her 2014 season, gradually worked her way back into the golf world’s good graces.
Wie’s first appearance with the boys, on her home turf in Honolulu in 2004, "was a great thing to do and a great experience," Rankin said Sunday night. "But as time went on, it was no longer a worthy experiment [and] the joy ... began to fade.
"Much of [the criticism] has really warmed back up," Rankin noted. "She just makes people want to watch her play golf."