Lexi Thompson poised to produce coming off year of controversy, near misses

NAPLES, FL - NOVEMBER 19: Lexi Thompson of the United States plays a shot from a bunker on the sixth hole during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship at the Tiburon Golf Club on November 19, 2017 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Lexi Thompson poised to produce coming off year of controversy, near misses

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Lexi Thompson poised to produce coming off year of controversy, near misses

Last January, Brittany Lang looked on in awe as Lexi Thompson signed autographs outside the clubhouse on Paradise Island afte

After losing in a playoff to Brittany Lincicome. Thompson had caught the raw end of the deal at the season-opening Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic, playing the last couple holes in sideways rain and a four-club wind. Yet there she sat, greeting folks with a smile.

“Do you know how hard that is?” Lang asked. “Most people would go in the locker room and cry.”

No one could know then, of course, that Thompson would win twice and finish runner-up a staggering six times in 2017. At the explosive ANA Inspiration, she sobbed heavily in the arms of her mother, Judy, in the scoring tent before heading out to sign for the masses. At the season-ender in Naples, Fla., Thompson signed autographs on her way to the trophy ceremony not long after misfiring a 2-footer that would’ve given her a chance at winning every award the LPGA has to offer.

Through it all, she kept signing.

Thompson heads into the 2018 season with battle scars – and demons – that have made her more hungry and tough. The 22-year-old takes the moniker of top American seriously, and while she rarely lets down her guard, we’ve seen enough to know that she wants nothing more than to blow the roof off this game.

“She’s a lot of people’s hopes and dreams to be the best,” said older brother Curtis, who competes on the Web.com Tour.

What would it mean for the LPGA to have an American player as World No. 1?

Commissioner Mike Whan gets asked that question all the time. In the 11 years of the Rolex Rankings, only two Americans – Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr – have been ranked No. 1, for a combined 30 weeks. Thompson goes into 2018 at No. 4, 0.66 points behind Shanshan Feng.

WEST DES MOINES, IA - AUGUST 17: Lexi Thompson of Team USA signs autographs for fans during practice prior to The Solheim Cup at Des Moines Golf and Country Club on August 17, 2017 in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Lexi Thompson signs autographs at the The Solheim Cup. (Getty Images)

“Was it fundamentally different with Stacy at the top?” Whan asked. “We did add a lot of sponsors during that time. Most of those sponsors were on her (clothing and bag). I would tell you that when you look at the top players out there, take a look at the brands on them and then just wait for press conferences over the next six months. … What’s on Shanshan will someday
be on our tour schedule.”

While the potential in China is intriguing, the idea that an American player might generate more U.S.-based events hits a sweeter spot.

“Lexi just has that it factor,” said Tony Finau, who partnered with Thompson in December at the QBE Shootout. “We talk about it in sports all the time. She’s definitely one of those talents.”

Thompson’s highs and lows in her sixth year on the LPGA were equally epic. But overall it was her most consistent year to date, which led to her winning the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.

A key factor in her success was the addition of Scottish caddie Kevin McAlpine, who quit his job selling kids golf equipment in Scotland last March to take her bag. Thompson told her father that McAlpine might be the last caddie she ever hires.

“She has grown up a lot since I’ve been with her,” said McAlpine, noting that she’s more assertive and vocal about what she wants, whether the subject is her golf game or what’s for dinner. The one-time child prodigy has taken more ownership.

She also has fallen in love with her putter, a Bettinardi she picked up in the summer of 2016 in Chicago before the International Crown. Lewis talked to Lexi’s father, Scott Thompson, early in ’17 about having his daughter move closer to the ball. Kerr, one of the best putters on tour, thinks that overall, Thompson’s head is in a better place.

There were times in 2017, of course, when Thompson struggled with first-tee nerves and lost confidence in her driver, and she made uncharacteristic gaffes down the stretch. She called the 2-foot miss at the CME “a little mishap” in her hands.

“You know, crazy things happen like that,” she said. “I’ll move on.”

But there were also times when she showed unbelievable grit – as when she drove the green to kick off the 2017 Solheim Cup and then rallied on Sunday
in an all-world duel with Anna Nordqvist.

Optimists will focus on the signs of potential. Pessimists will wonder if she can bury the bad memories deep enough.

Thompson has worked with three mental coaches in her career, and while she wasn’t even considering adding one to her team at season’s end, her father, Scott, didn’t rule out the possibility down the road.

Jaye Marie Green didn’t qualify for the ANA in 2017 and was at home watching the final round from her couch. Green, now in her fifth year on the LPGA, thought she was witnessing some kind of cruel joke as she watched Sunday’s events unfold.

Thompson’s hiring of caddie Kevin McAlpine has helped the young star’s maturity and ownership of her decisions.

Thompson’s hiring of caddie Kevin McAlpine has helped the young star’s maturity
and ownership of her decisions. (Getty Images)

What followed, the moxie of a woman who would not be denied in front of a gallery that was both rowdy and breathless, was unforgettable. Green said the only other person she could imagine rebounding in such a way is Dustin Johnson, whose agent once described him as being dipped in Teflon at birth.

“I’ve never seen someone so driven,” Green said. “It actually just gave me chills. It’s scary.”

Green and Thompson grew up together in south Florida and have known each other for nearly a decade. Sometimes they get dolled up and go down to Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach to have dinner and people watch. Green admires that the Thompsons still throw a party after every LPGA victory – nine and counting.

“Her family does a good job of making it a big deal and not like, ‘Oh we expect you to win all the time,’ ” Green said.

When parents of young golfers ask Scott for advice, he usually tells them to make sure their daughters are practicing with someone better. Lexi is long, Scott said, because she grew up playing against her two older brothers. He knew before the age of 10 that his only daughter was something special.

“She was an animal on the golf course,” he said, “just driven to win.”

People often comment that Lexi didn’t have much of a childhood because of golf. She qualified for her first U.S. Women’s Open at age 12 and won her first LPGA event at 16. There’s truth to that, Scott said.

Even now Scott and his wife, Judy, do as much as they can to make Lexi’s life away from the golf course as easy as possible, whether it’s upkeep on her home in Delray Beach or taking care of the finances.

Perhaps if they did less, Scott said, she’d have less time to read the comments on her social media posts. The vitriol after the ANA was tough to stomach for everyone on Thompson’s team. Her agent, Bobby Kreusler, said she received an avalanche of support in the aftermath of the ANA, but that it wasn’t enough to drown out the ugliness.

Lexi Thompson LPGA Ana Ispiration

Lexi Thompson found a new low point at the 2017 ANA Inspiration. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports).

“All of us are human,” Kreusler said. “We can read 100 good comments, and the one horrible one is the one we are going to hear and remember.”

Kreusler used words like “crippling” and “crushing” when asked what the ANA felt like to him personally. Scott Thompson doesn’t even like to talk about it with the media. It’s still too raw.

“That’s my kid out there,” he said walking down the ninth hole at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples. “It was killing me. I’d much rather it be me than her.”

The biggest challenge Thompson might face going forward, Lewis believes, is making the most of a limited schedule. In the past two years, Thompson has competed in only 19 and 21 LPGA events. Compare that to 27 for Ariya Jutanugarn in 2017, 26 for Lydia Ko and 23 for Sung Hyun Park.

Thompson first set a goal of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame when she turned professional at the age of 15. It’s her No. 1 goal, much higher than actually being No. 1, though the two often go hand-in-hand.

It’s more difficult now to make Lorena Ochoa-like runs – winning 14 times in the span of two seasons – but anything is possible. Look at how close she came six times last year. Thompson has 11 of the 27 points needed to qualify for the Hall of Fame. It’s easy to imagine Thompson exiting the game unusually early, like Ochoa, should she reach that goal.

Lewis knows more than most what a dominant Thompson would mean to the LPGA. The 12-time winner offered words of encouragement to the family behind the 18th green at Tiburon after her most recent heartbreaker.

“She has still done a lot of great things this year,” Lewis said. “Hopefully she can remember that and know that she is the best player on this tour and come out and show it (in 2018).”

(Note: This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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