Rochester-bound: Thompson lands Wegmans spot

Lexi Thompson waits on the green during the second round of the Navistar LPGA Classic at the Senator Course at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail on October 8, 2010.

Lexi Thompson waits on the green during the second round of the Navistar LPGA Classic at the Senator Course at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail on October 8, 2010.

MOBILE, Ala. – When Wegmans renegotiated its contract for this year’s LPGA Championship, an extra sponsor exemption was included in the package. Guess who’s going to Rochester this summer? Lexi Thompson.

Michelle Wie received a sponsor exemption as an amateur in 2005. In subsequent years, that spot has been given to the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. (Danielle Kang won last year.) The current exemption applies to any professional, with no criterium attached.

This puts the LPGA Championship in line with the three other women’s majors, which also have special exemptions available for professionals.

Tournament director Linda Hampton said the request wasn’t made specifically for Thompson. Rochester prides itself on being a knowledgeable golf community, and Hampton wanted the chance to fill a hole if “we felt the field was ever missing somebody.”

Jane Geddes, the LPGA’s senior vice president of tournament operations and player services, said Thompson might not be the only non-member in the field if there are two top-20 players in the Rolex Rankings not otherwise qualified. Last year, two JLPGA players filled those spots. That category went from three to two in 2011, thus opening up a spot for Thompson. “That way no members were affected,” Geddes said. The field will remain at 150 players. This year’s tournament will be held June 23-26 at Locust Hill Country Club.

Thompson watched the Kraft at home on TV, though she said it was weird. The 16-year-old finished tied for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open last year and was runner-up at the Evian Masters.

There’s no question that Thompson, when playing well, adds a substantial amount of buzz to any event. The LPGA isn’t negotiating these days from a position of strength, and it makes sense to give a longtime partner such as Wegmans what it wants, within reason. This seems reasonable.

The Avnet LPGA Classic marks the first time Thompson has played competitively since trying to Monday qualify for the Kia Classic. Her father, Scott, said the break has been “a little boring” for his youngest child.

In the past month, she has added a new trainer in Craig Slaunwhite, the strength and conditioning coach for the NHL’s Florida Panthers, and a mental coach in Gio Valiante. It’s the first time she has taken either part of the game seriously.

While she’s noticeably slimmer and more toned, Thompson has lost 15 yards of carry off the tee and 5 yards with her irons.

“I’m not really worried about length right now, just consistency,” she said.

Scott Thompson said his daughter is hitting her drives straighter, and he thinks the stronger frame is helping her posture. She’ll likely get the yardage back as her body adjusts. The reality is, Thompson remains well ahead of most of the field, even when 15 yards shorter.

After Mobile, she’ll have a couple of weeks at home in South Florida before playing in the Ladies European Tour’s German Open on May 19-22. Her next LPGA event will be the June 3-5 ShopRite LPGA Classic, where she made her professional debut last summer. She’ll then likely try to Monday qualify for the LPGA State Farm Classic, which is June 9-12, and then round out June at the LPGA Championship.

Thompson doesn’t feel famous. At home, she might use her credit card (attached to her bank account) to pay for her friends’ meals. Otherwise, she’s as average as any other home-schooled, world-class athlete.

“I am normal,” Thompson said with a smile. “I just travel the world.”

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