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Thompson is latest young gun

By DAN MIROCHA
Assistant Editor

Jim McLean, the decorated guru who has instructed players from Crenshaw to Kite, Garcia to Elkington, has seen enough golf in his career to control his emotions when dissecting the game’s best swings. His voice stays at an even pace and his words are softly spoken and carefully chosen.

Then Alexis Thompson came along.

McLean rounded up his family two days before Christmas to see Thompson, the 11-year-old wunderkind from Coral Springs, Fla., play the final round at the Doral-Publix Junior Golf Classic.

“We just had to see it,” McLean said.

Playing up three age divisions – a tournament first – Thompson outlasted girls who will soon be preparing for college and won the event by a shot over Japan’s Mitsuki Katahira.

“She’s an unbelievable competitor,” McLean said. “I’m just stunned on this historic junior win. It’s just unbelievable.”

Like most sixth grade girls, Thompson enjoys hanging out with friends, dancing and listening to music. But that’s where the similarities to her pre-teen companions end. For starters, Thompson already stands a stout 5-feet-4 and is just beginning to grow and mature.

“She’s built like a 15-year-old and hits it like an 18-year-old,” said her coach Adam Harrell, lead master instructor at Weston Hills Country Club. “She hits the ball like a top AJGA player.”

And then there’s her attitude.

“She’s tremendously focused,” McLean said. “She almost can’t accept hitting a bad shot in practice. She has a way about her that you see in very few people. She’s got that look – like a Raymond Floyd, Tiger Woods-kind-of-look – all the time when she’s playing.”

After her breakthrough victory at Doral in the 16-18 age division, what she considers the biggest win of her young career, Thompson finished eighth at the Junior Orange Bowl and third at the Dixie Amateur. Keep in mind, again, that she is more than a year shy of becoming a teenager.

“It’s nice playing with older girls, it’s better competition for me,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t put any extra pressure on me. I just play like I’m one of them and I just play my game.”

Thompson gets her confidence and competitive instincts from her older brothers. Nicholas, 24, was a rookie on the PGA Tour in 2006 and will play on the Nationwide Tour this year. Curtis, 13, is Golfweek’s third-ranked junior in the Class of 2011. As children they competed in chipping and putting contests to see who would do chores. And while Nicholas usually beat his younger siblings, he was never short on brotherly advice.

“I tell her one thing: ‘Have fun,’ ” Nicholas said. “It’s just best to keep things simple.”

Harrell employs the same philosophy when instructing Thompson on the range. Instead of getting technical with her swing, Harrell conducts practice sessions in a light-hearted, fun way. He says this is crucial when working with someone who is just coming into her own as a golfer.

“I don’t think there is anyone this young with this much talent right now, maybe ever,” Harrell said. “She’s so talented, I let her natural ability take over.”

Thompson is currently No. 64 in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, and No. 1 in the Class of 2013. She has competed in the 16-18 age division the past two seasons on the Florida Junior Tour and carded a final-round 68 in late November to win a 54-hole event by five shots at Walt Disney World. She has finished in the top five in five of seven events in the top age division over the past two seasons.

“Some people just come up to me and say, ‘Good playing. You’re so young. When did you start playing?’ It makes me feel great knowing that I’m just good,” Thompson said.

Recently home-schooled in order to focus more time on her game, Thompson will be honing her craft in preparation to accomplish her No. 1 goal this summer: Win an AJGA event. She will turn 12 next month, making her eligible to play against the country’s top juniors. Thompson’s next opportunity to show off her game will come in March at the Kathy Whitworth Invitational, an AJGA-ranked event.

“I think she has unlimited potential,” McLean said. “It’s just exciting to see.”

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Dan Mirocha is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail [email protected]

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