Sometimes when success comes suddenly it takes time to sort things out. And sometimes that sorting out comes about only after reality disrupts the party, a stark reminder that the top is best appreciated when viewed from down below.
Lexi Thompson knows all about that.
So many good things came to Thompson so quickly that when life started tossing curveballs her way, she felt as if she were the victim of a vast conspiracy. Through help from family, friends and experts, Thompson now sees she simply got caught in the spotlight, growing up in the harsh and often cruel glare of public attention.
But here she is at age 24, standing up there giving all her might, more than willing to start all over again. As good as Thompson has been – 11 LPGA victories including a major championship – it feels as if her massive potential, which looms as large as her 6-foot frame and as long as her booming drives, has only had its surface scratched.
The Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw, said youth is wasted on the young. What he meant is the enthusiasm of youth usually exceeds the understanding that comes only with age. For Thompson, it meant learning she’s not a golfer who happens to be a person but rather a person who happens to be a golfer.
“It’s been a lot to deal with, but growing up, golf was always in my blood. I knew what came with it. Unfortunately there has been a lot of downs, but it makes the ups that much better.”
– Lexi Thompson
In the past couple of years Thompson has been taught some painful lessons by experience. Ideally, such self-discovery leads to figuring out what makes you happy. Bob Jones walked away from tournament golf at 28, as did Lorena Ochoa. Both loved the game, but not the competition. They figured out they were happier without it.
For others, like JoAnne Carner and the late Arnold Palmer, the crowds, the competition, the challenge of perfecting a skill rented but never owned is an endless quest at the core of who they are. They could not live without it. Being in the spotlight is at the essence of their being.
With no small measure of irony, the scene of Thompson’s greatest triumph – the ANA Inspiration, where she won her first major championship in 2014 – was in 2017 the first domino in a tumbling series of incidents that put her on the road to painful self-discovery.
“I’ve been in this game since (I was) 12 years (old),” Thompson said late in 2018 after a month-long break from competition that included skipping the Women’s British Open. “I’ve been in, I don’t want to say spotlight, but I’ve been in (it) since I made it to (my) first U.S. Women’s Open,” she said.
“It’s been a lot to deal with, but growing up, golf was always in my blood,” she said. “I knew what came with it. Unfortunately there has been a lot of downs, but it makes the ups that much better.”
Thompson did grow up in golf. Her father, Scott, is her instructor, her brothers, Curtis and Nicholas, are both professionals, and she was home-schooled to give more flexibility for practice and competition. Since she was a pre-teen, the phrase “youngest ever” has been part of Thompson’s name. She’s lived in the golf bubble, only recently peeking at the world outside and liking what she sees.
Thompson qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at age 12. She won the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior at 13. In 2011, she won an LPGA event at 16 and took home that 2014 ANA Inspiration title at 19. She’s toiled in the spotlight of celebrity for more than half of her 24 years, blood and sweat mixed with occasional tears.
Her accomplishments have been impressive. At an age at which Annika Sörenstam had yet to win any of her 72 LPGA titles and 10 majors, Thompson has 11 victories. Her résumé gives testimony to her natural talent, but now she has a new perspective. Now, she sees the world as more than golf.
Dale Lewis, the father LPGA standout Stacy Lewis, once said: “Sometimes it’s good when you don’t get old at a young age.” He was referring to the fact his daughter did not turn pro until she was 23, after back surgery and four years at the University of Arkansas, exempting her from the pressure of being a teenage sensation.
Now, at 34, Lewis has 12 wins including two majors. She also has an off-the-course life that includes a husband, Gerrod Chadwell, and a daughter, Chesnee Lynn Chadwell, who was born in October and now accompanies Mom on the road to tournaments.
“I hope to balance things between my life both on and off the golf course,” Thompson said earlier this year. “I hope to represent the USA in the Solheim Cup. And I will try my best to win every golf tournament that I play in.”
She need not worry about the Solheim Cup. A T3 in the ANA Inspiration in March, a T2 at the U.S. Women’s Open in June followed the next week by victory at the ShopRite LPGA Classic vaulted her to the top of the U.S. standings. And her grinding efforts prove she’s trying her best every week.
Thompson’s month-long hiatus in 2018 was provoked by turmoil that started in 2017. First, she lost the ANA in a playoff with So Yeon Ryu after a four-stroke penalty – two for improperly replacing her marked ball and two for recording an inaccurate score, a rule since changed.
Those close to Thompson say that while she handled the immediate aftermath of the ANA penalty with extreme grace, the pain of its impact grew over time. Not only had she lost a major but it also cost her the Rolex Player of the Year and a couple of LPGA Hall of Fame points. She also was blasted on social media about her intent when she replaced that marked ball.
A month after the ANA incident, Thompson’s mother, Judy, joined her at the LPGA tournament at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia for a mother-daughter week. It was a fun time that included Lexi skydiving onto the first tee of the pro-am then winning the tournament by five strokes after three rounds of 65 and a ho-hum 69. It appeared she had put ANA in the past.
But Judy, who 10 years earlier had overcome breast cancer, wasn’t feeling well and subsequently was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Two weeks later, she had successful surgery, but not before a period of intense anxiety. Finally, the 2017 season ended when Lexi kicked away the CME Group Tour Championship by missing a 2-foot putt, the Achilles heel she thought she’d cured.
Thompson went into 2018 with a serious hangover from the previous season. By July, it caught up to her. After a T38 at the Marathon Classic, she said she would skip the Women’s British Open and ended up taking a month off.
“My break was very important to me,” she said at the 2018 Tour Championship. “I really needed to take that time for myself to work on myself off the golf course. It was important to realize that I’m not just a professional golfer, but that I’m also just a 23-year-old young woman trying to figure things out.”
Thompson has been body-shamed on Twitter, called an underachiever, had her professional ethics questioned and finally blasted for playing golf with President Trump. That’s when she decided social media was too anti-social for her and stepped away from it.
Nearly a year later, Thompson is a player with the same sensational skills and competitive fire as before, but added to the complex chemistry that makes up a champion is a dash of maturity that can come only from experience and introspection.
“My perspective remains the same, in that I want to win every tournament that I play in,” Thompson says. “But I also now know that it’s just a single tournament, that it is not life or death.”
When she returned to competition in 2018, it was with a new puppy named Leo and that altered perspective. And in November, she won that same Tour Championship that had contributed to her downward spiral after the 2017 season.
“I just needed to relax, hang out with my family, and just figure out a few things off the golf course,” she said. “Golf is just a game. It’s hard to say that, but you just have to think that. It’s just what I’m doing.”
That entire week in Naples, Fla., Thompson frequently had Leo in her arms, almost as if the part Havanese, part poodle was a furry reminder that happiness does not live only inside the ropes.
“I’m doing well,” Thompson said. “It’s definitely a process. I’ve been working on myself a lot with just going to therapists or just trying to figure myself out off the golf course, because I’m not just the golfer Lexi. That’s what I want people to know, and not expect so much out of me. It’s hard to believe it sometimes because I do take it very seriously. I mean, it’s been my life for a very long time.”
The knowledge Thompson gained during her break and subsequent counseling could be important not just for her but also for other young LPGA players. She could become a role model for those women who, like her, have grown up in the spotlight of pro sports.
“It was a remarkable year for Lexi,” says Bobby Kreusler, her agent for Blue Giraffe Sports. “She realized how important it was to start taking time for herself. And that journey led her to begin to understand that playing professional golf is just what she does for a living, and that it does not define her as a person. Lexi learned that there is much more to life than just playing golf.”
Is there a chance that redirecting her focus could have a detrimental affect on her game? Kreusler doesn’t see it.
“There is no question in my mind that Lexi’s personal growth will lead her to being a better player as well,” he says. “That balance will make her an even more complete player.”
Midway into 2019, that seems to be the case. Thompson closed with a 67 at the ANA – 32 on the back nine – but Jin Young Ko held her off with a 70. She ran into another hot player at the U.S. Women’s Open as Jeongeun Lee6 made three birdies in five holes on the back nine Sunday and finished two strokes ahead of Thompson, Ryu and Angel Yin.
The next week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, where she had made her professional debut in 2010, Thompson eagled the final hole to win by one stroke ahead of Lee6.
“I got chills; like my hair on my arms was like sticking up once I made that putt,” Thompson said about the winning 20-footer, her emotions proving Kreusler right and that the thrill of competition remains for her.
Putting remains an issue; it has always been the hole in Thompson’s game. On Saturday at the ShopRite event she had a four-putt – three from 3 feet – but a suggestion from her brother Curtis before the U.S. Women’s Open that she try the claw grip is helping. “I’m going to stick with it,” she says. “It’s a matter of getting a lot more comfortable with it.”
Seven of Thompson’s 11 LPGA victories came by the time she was 21. With her latest triumph at ShopRite, she’s now won at least once each of the past seven seasons. What’s clear is that Thompson still has a love affair with the game that has not only not been dimmed by what she has gone through but enhanced by those traumas.
“I love seeing little kids out there supporting the game and just following us,” she says. “They don’t know how you’re playing. I could shoot 6 over and they’re like, ‘Great playing,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, no.’ But they’re so cute. It’s because of the fans that I made it through adversity a few years ago and that I’m still chugging along and just looking at the positives and everything.”
Looking at things in a positive light is challenging in this age of social media. Thompson has been body-shamed on Twitter, called an underachiever, had her professional ethics questioned and finally blasted for playing golf with President Trump. That’s when she decided social media was too anti-social for her and stepped away from it.
“You know, I’ve definitely been through a lot, but a lot of people have,” Thompson says. “I think the fans have truly helped me out a lot, not only them but my family and my support team that I have around me, they’ve helped me so much just to get me through everything. Really what my mom has gone through, seeing just her attitude in life, has really opened up my eyes for things that I’ve been through. It’s not that bad.”
For virtually all her life, golf has been all of Thompson’s life. Now that the game alone doesn’t control her happiness she is a happier person and that could lead her to becoming to an even better player.
“I hope nobody has to go through what I did in 2017 with the few curveballs that were thrown at me,” Thompson said after winning at ShopRite. “But I really just want to show people that you can get through anything that life throws at you. You just have to keep on pushing through it with a positive attitude and just keep going and not give up because if you do, life will get at you and you’ll go downhill.”
No four-stroke penalty, no missed 2-footer will ever be as impactful as her mom’s cancer, Thompson now knows. Life is far bigger than what you shoot.
“Obviously we’re all human,” Thompson says. “We have emotions. We feel sad, depressed and everything with going through those things, but you have to be strong enough to get through things, and I think that’s the most important thing to have the support team around you, the family, the friends, just to keep on picking you up and be there for you, and I think that’s what helped me out the most.”
Sometimes, stepping back reveals happiness in unexpected places. Sometimes, distance uncovers the missing piece that completes the puzzle. Usually, becoming a better person makes you better at whatever you do. A better Lexi Thompson on the golf course would be something to behold.
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