SOUTHERN PINES — Peggy Kirk Bell might be gone, but the late matriarch’s spirit can be felt all around her Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Resort as it hosts its fourth U.S. Women’s Open.
It was a different ghost, however, that followed Lexi Thompson around during her opening 18 holes on Thursday.
Just 12 months ago, Thompson appeared to have the Women’s Open won, leading by five strokes with eight holes to play at San Francisco’s Olympic Club before faltering down the stretch and finishing one shot out of a playoff.
It was an epic collapse that left her in tears as she left the course.
But if the 27-year-old Florida native is still haunted by the disappointment, it didn’t show in her play.
“As far as last year, it’s over with. It’s this year,” she said. “I took it, I learned from it and I moved on.”
Thompson rebounded nicely in her return to USGA play, carding a steady 3-under-par 68 that included an eagle on the par-5 first, her ninth hole of the day.
While the score sets her up nicely near the top of the leaderboard, tied for sixth just four shots behind first-round leader Mina Harigae, she said she’s more concerned with how she’s playing rather than her placement.
At least for now.
“Honestly I haven’t looked at a leaderboard, so I don’t even know the position that I am at,” she said in her post-round media session. “ I’ve just been trying to focus on my own game and my own emotion. That’s all I can control, but I know my game has been in a good spot.”
Thompson burst onto the scene in 2007 when as a 12-year-old she became the youngest player ever to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open. She turned pro as a 15-year-old in 2010 and a year later became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour.
Among her 11 career victories is a major championship at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Although she’s in the midst of an extended slump that has seen her go three years since her most recent win — at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in June 2019 — Thompson appears to be getting close to a breakthrough.
She has twice finished second this year, most recently at the Cognizant Founders Cup in Clifton, New Jersey, four weeks ago.
After what happened a year ago, it would be poetic justice for her drought to end at the Women’s Open. But if she learned anything from that forgettable experience, it’s not to get caught looking too far ahead.
“At a U.S. Women’s Open Championship, sometimes you just have to aim away from pins, take your pars and get off the hole,” she said. “It’s all about patience.”
“I think there are a few gettable pins that they’ll put throughout the days. But like I said, just being patient and taking the pars when you can and being aggressive at the pins that you can be aggressive at (is the approach) because some you can just get bit in the butt if you go for a pin and just miss it by a few yards.”
It’s a lesson she learned from experience over the final eight holes last year.
“It didn’t go the way I wanted to, but every time I tee it up there’s always something to learn,” she said. “I always say there’s really no feeling, you’re always learning. Everytime I tee it up, there’s something to be processed, to learn. Yeah, it didn’t go my way, it was frustrating, but it happens. I’m here.”