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Inside the clever driving strategy Lexi Thompson used at the Shriners


Michael Owens

October 13, 2023

At the start of the Shriners Children's Open, Lexi Thompson said becoming the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 to make the cut in a men's event would be among the biggest achievement of her career.

She was just the seventh woman in history to try, and for a while, it looked like she might. Thompson played her way inside the cutline deep into her second round., but her rounds of 73-69 meant she was likely to miss as play continued on Friday. Her run but her run captivated and inspired the golf world along the way. And her good play wasn’t just the result of elite skill, but clever game management.

How Lexi chased roll

On the course, the primary issue that Thompson, like the trailblazing female golfers before her, was a relative lack of driving distance.

Thompson played from the same set of tees as her male counterparts at the Shriners. Her average ball speed hovered around 155 mph for most of the tournament. The PGA Tour's average tour speed, by contrast, is 172 mph. It led to a distance discrepancy that left Thompson ranked 116th in the field in Driving Distance, with a 301-yard average.

Yet through an adept combination of elite level skill and smarts, Lexi was able to mitigate this disadvantage, and put herself in contention to make the cut anyway.

Thompson's stock shot off the tee is a draw—a shot that moves from right-to-left. But as the tournament unfolded, golf fans watching closely could see Thompson turning the dial up and down on her draw at different points during her round.

On certain holes where Lexi didn't need to stretch more distance out of her drives, she would turn the dial down, hitting a shot that that flew higher than her standard, with slightly more backspin, and mostly straight.

We saw this on the second hole, which moves severely from left-to-right (an awkward fit for her right-to-left draw players) during her first round.

We saw it also on the reachable par-4 15th hole during her second round. Lexi had the distance required to reach the green with a driver, so the priority became landing something soft enough to hold the green—which she did.

Then, on holes where Thompson needed as much distance as she could muster, she turned the dial up. Her stock right-to-left draw became bigger and more severe, which reduced the amount of backspin on her drives. When Lexi turned to this shot the ball landed and rolled—a lot. It allowed her to maximize her driving distance to her fullest extend, especially as the fairways began firming up over the course of her rounds.

We saw this on the fourth hole, one of the longest par-4s on the course, during her second round.

You could also spot it on the nearly 600-yard 13th hole during her first round.

It's not easy to conjure up this amount of curve on your driver and still maintain enough accuracy to hit the fairway, but Thompson did. She ranked inside the top 20 in driving accuracy over the week, which helped her SG/off-the-tee ranking (81st) jump higher than her driving distance ranking (116th).

It was an impressive display of control and creativity from a player who makes her money on the LPGA Tour leaning on her distance. But that's what great players do. When the circumstances call for it, they adapt. That’s what Lexi did, and it was a joy to watch.

What the rest of us can learn

As for the takeaway for the rest of us? That too much backspin on drives is a driving distance killer. If you hit a slice, you almost certainly have too much distance-killing backspin. Same with if you have a driver that isn't fit for your swing. It's all about landing in your optimal zone.