Thompson’s victory ups the ante for LPGA

Lexi Thompson holds high her trophy after winning the Navistar LPGA Classic on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Capitol Hill in Prattville, Ala., on Sunday Sept. 18, 2011.

Lexi Thompson holds high her trophy after winning the Navistar LPGA Classic on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at Capitol Hill in Prattville, Ala., on Sunday Sept. 18, 2011.

PRATTVILLE, Ala. - Tournament directors want Lexi Thompson in the field because anyone who has watched the 16-year-old play in the past two years has known that any week she could make history. Thompson shot 78 in a Monday qualifier at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, but nevermind.

Thirteen days later, she marched to victory in Alabama, giving Navistar a significant publicity boost as Thompson became the youngest winner in the LPGA’s 61 years, at 16 years, 7 months and 8 days.

Congratulations, Navistar.

Arguments can be made that Thompson’s feat trumps Yani Tseng’s five majors at age 22 as the year’s top storyline. Americans are obsessed with phenoms, particularly American ones.

Aside from the fact that Thompson hovers near 6 feet tall, she looks and sounds like your average 16-year-old, with her matching loose-fitting Puma outfits and hair ribbons. It’s only when she steps onto the tee and outdrives everyone in the field that Thompson draws attention.

“Lexi has always set goals very high,” said Thompson’s mom, Judy. “We just let her dream.”

(For more on this story, click here.)

Thompson led the field in driving distance this week and wedged the field to death. She finished five strokes clear of rookie Tiffany Joh, who had one request from Thompson on Twitter before the final round: “Just don’t laugh at me as you walk 120 yards past my ball tomorrow, k? Thanks.”

Scott Thompson has caddied for Lexi throughout her career and said he “could’ve keeled over on every hole out there.” As Joh pulled within three strokes of Thompson on the back nine, Scott told his daughter that she could par in and still win.

“Nah, it’s on,” Lexi replied, as she nearly holed her tee shot on the 16th and drained another birdie putt for good measure on the 17th.

“Coming up the 18th, it was like all the pressure was let off,” Lexi said. “I just let go and waved to the fans and everybody.”

Thompson and Joh qualified for the season-ending CME Group Titleholders thanks to their performances at Navistar. Thompson earned $195,000. Non-members who win on tour have the option to join the LPGA, provided they meet the tour’s age requirement of 18.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan already gave Thompson permission to attend Qualifying School. She trounced the field in Stage 1 of Q-School, winning by 10 strokes. The second stage is scheduled for Sept. 27-30 in Venice, Fla. Shortly after her Navistar victory, however, Thompson petitioned the tour for the right to skip the final two stages of Q-School, according to her agent, Bobby Kreusler. Whan is expected to deliver a decision within days.

Last Sunday, Thompson hit the first shot at the Senator Course since Memorial Day as the course underwent renovations. Her ball-striking was so strong coming into the event that her instructor, Jim McLean, focused solely on her short game at their last session. McLean was in Italy on vacation this week and kept up with Thompson via live scoring.

It had been a lackluster year for Thompson, who played in seven LPGA events before Navistar and missed the cut in four. Her top finish was a T-19 at the Avnet event in Mobile, where she held the lead going into Sunday and stumbled in with a 78.

Thompson hit every green on Thursday in Prattville en route to a 66. She had 14 putts for birdie within 15 feet, according to her father’s unofficial stats.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen much better than that,” Scott Thompson said.

For the week, she hit 63 greens and 39 of 56 fairways. She averaged 276.63 yards off the tee.

For those who questioned Whan’s decision to let Thompson participate in Q-School, this ought to end the discussion.

Suzann Pettersen joked that she was in diapers at age 16, while Sandra Gal claimed to have a handicap of 9.

Thompson walked out of the scoring tent on Sunday drinking a Red Bull, one of her sponsors. She’s making grown-up money for that kind of product placement, and this week proved she’s worth every penny.

Admission to the Navistar LPGA Classic was free, but fans were few and far between during the first couple of rounds. Pettersen, Cristie Kerr and Na Yeon Choi were paired together on Thursday and Friday (Nos. 2-4 in the Rolex Rankings), and most of the folks following were either related to someone in the group or working the tournament.

Those who don’t want to see a 16-year-old compete on the LPGA full time need to start looking at the big picture. Whan can’t afford to turn away someone who attracts sponsors and draws a crowd.

As the kids like to say, she’s winning.

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