Minjee Lee prevails in back-nine battle with Lexi Thompson at LPGA Cognizant Founders Cup

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CLIFTON, N.J. — Upper Montclair Country Club boasts a list of champions that includes some of the best women and men to ever play the game.

So it should not have been a surprise Sunday afternoon when the final group arrived at the 10th hole with two of the best players on the LPGA locked in a battle for the Cognizant Founders Cup.

Minjee Lee got her breakthrough. Lexi Thompson will have to continue searching for hers.

Lee won for the first time in nearly 10 months, shooting a gutsy 2-under-par 70 to finish at 19-under par, edging Thompson by two shots after her 3-under 69. It wasn’t an easy day for Lee. But it was enough.

“I wasn’t really that nervous, but obviously I wasn’t really striking it as well as I wanted to. I still drove it and putted it really well, so I’m going to take the positives. … Even though I didn’t hit it that well today, i’m still really, really happy.”

It was Lee’s first win since July, when she broke through for her first career major at the Evian Championship in France. But she has been on the verge seemingly ever since. She missed the cut in the Scottish Open last August — her first event after the big win — but in the next 11 events before arriving in Jersey she didn’t finish worse than a tie for 25th and gave herself plenty of chances to win with five top-five finishes.

Sunday, it finally happened. But it took a lot more effort than it looked like it might earlier in the week.

Lee, who surged to a three-shot 36-hole lead after a 9-under 63 on Friday. But the lead was down to one shot to start Sunday’s final round, which was delayed an hour by fog. And Lee did not get off to a good start. She missed a two-foot birdie putt at the fourth hole and was 1-over after a bad lie above a green-side bunker at No. 8 led to her first bogey of the day.

Thompson was looking for her first win in nearly three years, and looking to continue her success in the Garden State: that last win came down the Parkway at the 2019 ShopRite LPGA Classic. And it looked like it might be her day after she hit a brilliant approach at No. 10, and made the tricky downhill birdie putt, to pull even with Lee at 16-under. They both took advantage of the reachable par-5 12th hole, hitting the green in two and making easy birdies to tie for the lead at 17-under.

But Thompson struggled with her driver the entire back nine, missing the fairway left on the 11th and 13th holes and pushing her drive into a bunker right on the par-5 14th. Thompson had to settle for making a tricky five-footer for par, while Lee, who split the fairway with her drive and nearly reached the green in two, made an easy birdie to pull ahead for good.

Thompson had a chance to put pressure on Lee with mid-range putts on the par-3 17th and short par-4 18th, but couldn’t get them to drop. And Lee, who lipped out a birdie putt that would have sealed the win on the 17th, drained her short birdie putt on 18 to secure the two-shot win.

The 27-year-old Thompson has won 11 LPGA titles, including a major. But the drought continues.

Lee, 25, won for the seventh time on the LPGA Tour and takes home $450,000 for the victory — the largest prize in women’s golf outside of the majors and season-ending events.