Lexi Thompson hunting Olympic gold: Final Round preview of the US Women’s Championship

The American thrashed a brilliant third round 66 to take a one shot lead into Sunday at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Lexi Thompson has a bit of history with the US Women's Open: the 26-year-old is playing the tournament this week for a 15th time.

Yes, you did read that right: 15th (fifteenth).

She first played it in 2007 as a 12-year-old, had a second go at 13, made the cut when she was 14, and finished top 10 when 15.

Eleven years on, she is in position to complete the circle: she leads the 2021 championship by one shot on 7-under-par 206 with 18 holes to play at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

For all her astonishing experience, this is only the second time she has genuinely been in-contention with 18 holes to play - she was one blow back of the lead two years ago on her way to tied second, her best finish in the event.

Four back of the lead at the start of Saturday, she ended it in prime position to claim a second Major Championship thanks to carding a 5-under-par 66, the first bogey-free lap of the course all week.

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Although Thompson is a two-time runner-up this season, this is not a performance those on the outside might have predicted.

She hasn't won a title since mid-2019, missed the cut in this event last December (her first since 2011) and had finished mid-leaderboard, not close to contending, in her two previous starts.

But insiders might have noted there were changes afoot.

"I was just taking it way too seriously," she admitted. "I was thinking that Lexi depended on my score. It's really hard for me to not think that, but I just got into a state.

"I've been calling (performance coach) John Denney to discuss my mindset, just really focusing on the good in my life."

A direct consequence for her golf was a change of perspective: she stopped deeming a bad lie as the end of the world and started seeing it as an opportunity to use her skill set to salvage par.

As US Open strategies go, it's kind of neat, not to say perfect.

Her nearest challenge is Yuka Saso, a 19-year-old seeking to become the first Philippines golfer to win a Major.

She spent lockdown studying the swing of Rory McIlroy and her action does have a remarkable resemblance to his. She was a double winner on the JLPGA last year and a halfway leader in the LPGA Tour LOTTE Championship earlier this year, but is in new territory.

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Sharing fourth are the 2019 US Women's Open champion Jeongeun Lee6 and the 17-year-old amateur Megha Ganne.

The sceptical might doubt the prospects of Saso and Ganne, but there is every chance they both glance at the list of post-lockdown winners of the women's Majors and think: "If them, why not me?"

It is a run that was started by Sophia Popov in the Women's British Open (100/1), continued by Mirim Lee in last year's ANA Inspiration (750/1), maintained by A Lim Kim in December's US Women's Open (150/1), and appeared to be concluded by Patty Tavatanakit's ANA Inspiration triumph (150/1).

Saso started the week rated a 300/1 shot and Ganne was available at 1000/1!

Ahead of the final round let's take a look at the leading contenders.

Lexi Thompson - first on 7-under

Seems happier after consultation with her performance coach and you suspect, if they chat before the final round, one topic of conversation will be how she deals with mistakes - because after a bogey-free low lap the law of averages demands she will make some.

She's played 10 final rounds in the US Women's Open and is yet to break 70, but that doesn't mean a great deal - it's about as tough a lap of golf as can be played. She'll know that even a 72 could get it done.

Her record with a lead is good. She's a 17-time leader or co-leader with 18 holes to play and has won 11 times.

Yuka Saso - second on 6-under

Her first win in Japan came from one blow back with 18 holes to play, her second from a solo 54 hole lead. Her response to that halfway lead on the LPGA earlier this season was not disastrous (71-70), but it saw her drop from a two shot lead to tied sixth.

Can she continue to miss so many fairways? She's landed 24 of 42 so far, but has been superb gouging the ball onto the greens and only one player has bettered her count of 81 putts through 54 holes.

She said after her third round: "I've learned so much last year and this year. I've been having a great chance playing with the great players, seeing them play, being so patient, trusting on what they do."

Megha Ganne - tied third on 3-under

The 17-year-old is still in high school and clearly having the time of her life. What impresses, other than a slightly ludicrous 77 putts for three rounds, is her humour and balance off the course.

She had a Uruguayan flag assigned her on the leaderboard and gently responded with: "Much love to Uruguay, but that's not where I'm from."

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"I wish it wasn't over so quickly," she added. "It's been so much fun. I can't wait to go back out there tomorrow, and I'm already counting down the hours until I tee off again."

An interesting potential dynamic in the final round? They will play in three-balls, with Ganne joining the top two and she's good friends with Saso, saying: "We're super close, she's one of my favourite people ever." Astounding that 26-year-old Thompson might easily spend the day feeling old.

Jeongeun Lee6 - tied third on 3-under

Two years ago Lee6 pounced from tied sixth and two shots back at this stage - can she pull off something similar this week to claim the title for second time?

She's solid from the tee (T12th for Driving Accuracy), excellent with approaches (T5th for Greens in Regulation) and has a good short game (T11th for Putting).

This form is something of a bolt from the blue, though - she's made only one top 20 all season (T7th in April).

Conclusions

Winners of the US Women's Open hit a lot of Greens in Regulation: nine of the last 10 ranked seventh or better in the category.

Currently Thompson and Lee6 are T5th, Saso 14th, Ganne 51st.

From 1996 to 2014 the 54 holes leaders performed superbly: in that period 14 of 19 winner had held a solo lead or shared the lead after three rounds, not one emerged from further back than tied fourth and all were within three strokes.

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But the last six events have been very different: Ariya Jutanugarn won having held a four shot 54 hole lead (although she needed a playoff), the other five were between tied third and tied ninth on the leaderboard at this stage (and two to five shots back).

It hints that Shanshan Feng (fifth, 2-under), Nasa Hataoka/Megan Khang (tied sixth, 1-under) and Inbee Park (eighth, level) have an outside chance. Of that quartet, however, only Khang ranks top 20 for GIR - she's seventh.

Thompson is the 8/11 favourite with Paddy Power. They rate Saso 5/2, Lee6 10/1, Ganne 18/1, Park 28/1 and Khang 50/1.

Despite her fine record with a lead, a lay of Thompson might be the best call.

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