[PHOTO: Steph Chambers]

Lexi Thompson downplayed that announcing her retirement was the key to rediscovering her prime form. The 29-year-old shared at the US Women’s Open that this would be her final season of full-time play on the LPGA Tour. After missing the cut at Lancaster Country Club, she has played some of her best golf in years.

Thompson was topped by Lilia Vu in last week’s Meijer LPGA Classic in a three-way playoff. The American continued her stellar play with a four-under 68 in the first round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship to take the outright lead after the first round of a major for the first time in her 13-year career.

Lexi Thompson announces her retirement

“I don’t think that has to do anything with announcing what I did,” Thompson said. “It’s just a matter of being comfortable out there and playing free-swing Lexi and just enjoying being out there every step of the way.”

Thompson felt she found something in her swing on Tuesday of last week that allowed her to slow down her tempo, unlocking a free-flowing nature. In her last five rounds, she has hit 78.9 percent of greens in regulation, more than 8 percent higher than her season average (70.5 percent). She hit 14 greens in her opening round at Sahalee Country Club.

After starting poorly in her past two events, Nelly Korda jumps out quickly in search of second major this year

Thompson also credited her success to starting to work with long-time friend Mark Wallington last week. The veteran caddie’s consistent positive affirmations keep Thompson lighthearted and happy on the course. The tandem made a needed birdie on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff at Blythefield Country Club last week, then birdied the first two playoff holes before Vu birdied the third extra hole for the win.

“I don’t know if it was the atmosphere of the event and just enjoying being out there, and just felt more free and enjoyed myself a lot more,” Thompson said. “So it kind of just all clicked.”

Thompson remained on fire amid the towering trees in Washington state with her ball-striking. She didn’t have a putt outside five feet for birdie over her first three holes, jumping to three-under and tied at the top of the leaderboard. A birdie on the ninth completed a clean opening side with a four-under 32. Thompson carded six birdies to tie her with Nelly Korda for the most birdies despite hitting only six fairways.

“I played solid golf,” Thompson said. “I just try to stay in the moment. There’s a lot of tough holes out there. So just try to visualise and really pick small targets, and just take advantage of the few birdie opportunities that you get out there.”

Thompson is contending in a major for the first time since the 2022 Women’s PGA, where she squandered a two-stroke lead with three holes to play at the Congressional’s Blue course. Her group-mate at Sahalee Country Club today, Yuka Saso, was the beneficiary of Thompson’s back-nine collapse in the 2021 US Women’s Open at the Olympic Club. Thompson lost a five-shot lead before missing out on a playoff that Saso won over Nasa Hataoka. Since then, she has struggled in majors.

Thompson has only made one cut in the past seven majors, that coming in last year’s Women’s PGA, where she tied for 47th place. Before today, she had not broken 70 in a major since the second round at Congressional two years ago. The 11-time LPGA winner’s lone major title came at the 2014 ANA Inspiration a decade ago.

When asked if she could see herself changing her retirement decision should she win a big title, Thompson did not definitively commit to that decision.

“I figured I would be getting that question,” Thompson said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I made my announcement. I’m very content with it. Golf is a crazy game, so I’m not going to look too far ahead. Just taking it one day at a time and see where it takes me.”

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Hannah Green’s love affair with the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the Pacific North-West of the US continued during the first round at Sahalee, where she tops the eight-strong Australian contingent.

Out early alongside world No.1 Korda, who signed for three-under to share second with Patty Tavatanakit to sit one behind Thompson, Green opened with a one-under 71 to sit in a tie for 15th after starting her day with a bang.

The 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA champion got underway with back-to-back birdies after teeing off the 10th hole, where Green struck her 134-metre second shot inside three feet for the best imaginable start.

Bogey at the 14th and a third birdie at 16 saw the world No.5 make the turn in two-under before recovering from two bogeys in the middle of her second nine at the final hole of the day.

Sitting even-par, Green struck another pure iron shot from 162 metres at the par-3 ninth, where she rolled in a 16-foot birdie putt to be the lone Australian under par and well placed as she chases a third win in 2024.

Missing out on a win of her own in a play-off last week, Grace Kim is the next best of the Australians after opening with a one-over 73 that was made better late in her round when the Sydneysider dropped a 35-foot birdie putt at the par-3 17th to join a tie for 36th.

Similarly ending her day on a high, Steph Kyriacou birdied the par-5 18th to sign for an opening two-over 74, with the 23-year-old alongside Gabi Ruffels and Minjee Lee in a share for 54th.

Ruffels looked set for another enjoyable day at the majors after making the turn in one-under, having started from the 10th before a rollercoaster five-hole stretch which included four bogeys and a birdie.

Opening her first round with a bogey, it was steady stuff around the ultra-narrow Sahalee for Lee, who entered as one of the pre-tournament favourites.

At one-over through nine holes, the two-time major champion mixed two bogeys and a birdie at the par-3 13th after a trademark flushed iron to seven feet to end the day two-over and six behind Thompson.

LPGA rookie Robyn Choi and veteran Sarah Kemp are the next best of the Australians sitting middle of the field after their first rounds of 75 to be three-over and tied for 70th, with Kiwi Lydia Ko on the same score after a final-hole birdie on her return to Sahalee where she lost in a playoff in 2016.

Making her championship debut, Hira Naveed rounds out the Aussies after finishing the first day 10-over-par.