Thompson's win eclipses Tour card concerns
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. It was only February, but Michael Thompson already was worried about keeping his card. Thoughts of the Web.com Tour, or worse, had entered his mind. Who can blame him? His best showing in four events was 78th. He finished last in his previous start.
Thompson has shown repeated resiliency throughout his career, though. His Honda Classic victory was the latest case. “He believes everything is going to work out,” said his instructor, Susie Meyers.
Thompson developed into the world’s No. 1 amateur while at the University of Alabama. He transferred to Tuscaloosa from Tulane after Hurricane Katrina disbanded the school’s golf program. He turned pro shortly after being low amateur (T-29) at the 2008 U.S. Open, but his pro career took a two-year detour to the Hooters Tour after an ill-advised swing change. He arrived at the Honda with a 73.1 scoring average in 2013. He shot par or better all four rounds to finish at 9-under 271, two shots ahead of Geoff Ogilvy.
“I think I’ve always been a scrappy player,” said Thompson, who rose to a career-best 45th in the Official World Golf Ranking. "I think I've always been very good of having the mindset of, 'Go struggle, just go get it done. Get the ball in the hole.'"
Thompson’s top accomplishments have come on difficult courses. He was runner-up at last year’s U.S. Open and the 2007 U.S. Amateur, both at Olympic Club. Only 17 players broke par last week at a PGA National layout lined by thick rough and water and buffeted by high winds.
“He likes courses that are challenging because he doesn’t feel like he has to make a lot of birdies,” said his wife, Rachel, a former Tulane soccer player. “He likes the idea that he doesn’t have to hit it to 5 feet every time. He can hit to the middle of the green and try to make it from 25 feet.”
The putter has always been the strongest club in Thompson's bag. Meyers said the flatstick has become like an appendage.
“That club has become a part of his body,” she said. “He has really fine hands. He just feels the weight of the putter and lets it happen.” He built an early advantage Sunday by holing three putts of at least 13 feet during the first six holes, including a 49-footer for eagle at the par-5 third hole.
Meyers and Thompson have never searched for ball-striking perfection. Thompson concedes, “I’m not a great ballstriker.” He plays his best golf when he relies on his trademark trajectory, a low fade. His putting allows him to “feel like he can make mistakes and still get up-and-down,” Meyers said. Thompson saved par from 70 yards on the par-4 10th Sunday after mud sent his ball into pine straw far from the green.
He struggled early in his pro career when he tried to raise his trajectory after an agent told him he’d have to hit the ball higher to succeed on the PGA Tour. He earned his card at the 2010 Q-School after returning to the low, left-to-right shot. He finished in the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list in each of his first two seasons.
Meyers doesn’t use a camera while instructing Thompson because she doesn’t want him focusing on static positions. He practices by hitting shots of differing trajectories. His handful of drills work on maintaing the connection between his arms and body and allow him to feel the clubhead’s weight throughout his swing.
After finishing last at the Northern Trust Open, he arrived in South Florida a week before the Honda Classic. “Being at the very bottom, and being completely broken down, ... allowed him to focus on just enjoying the game again,” Rachel Thompson said.
University of Alabama coach Jay Seawell reminded him to play “Michael Thompson golf.” That means finding the green as quickly as possible, regardless of the route or the quality of shots that precede his putts.
“He knows he’s a great putter. When he knocks it on the green, it’s in his range,” Seawell said. Thompson’s victory is testament to playing within one’s abilities. It allowed him to hold off a star-studded field at the Honda Classic.
“I like to kind of be sneaky in a sense of just kind of plodding along and just playing my own game and hopefully I’ll be at the top at the end of the week,” Thompson said. That's how he finished at the Honda Classic.