Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 18, 2011

New Hope For The LPGA In Teenager Thompson

While no one has been looking (and believe me, when it comes to women’s professional golf, save for the most diehard of fans no one is looking), the LPGA may just have discovered its new American heroine. What’s more, in just another couple of years, she’ll be old enough to vote. In mid-September, 16-year old Lexi Thompson became the youngest player ever to win a LPGA tournament when she romped to a 5-stroke victory at the Navistar Classic in Alabama. This weekend she proved that victory was no fluke. Thompson wrote herself into golf’s history books by becoming the youngest professional winner ever on the Ladies European Tour as well, winning the Dubai Ladies Masters by 4 shots.

Of course, Thompson has been writing herself into the game’s history for some time. In 2007, at the age of 12, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. While she failed to make the cut at Pine Needles, that same year she became the second youngest winner of an American Junior Golf Association event, and the youngest winner of the girl’s Junior PGA Championship.

Thompson turned pro in 2010, one week after compiling a 4-0-1 record in helping the U.S. team to victory at the biennial Curtis Cup team competition between amateur women from America and Great Britain. Because LPGA rules required member’s to be at least 18, Thompson was limited to playing when she could get sponsor’s exemptions or at events with special qualifying procedures like the Open. She missed the cut in her first event as a pro, but in July 2010, playing in her fourth U.S. Open she finished tied for 10th. Two weeks later she finished tied for 2nd in France at the Evian Masters. In six LPGA events during 2010 Thompson made the cut four times and earned more than $335,000. Had she been a LPGA member that would have been good enough for 34th on the tour’s money list; though it’s worth noting that Hee Young Park, who was 34th, needed 22 events to match Thompson’s earnings.

Following the 2010 season Thompson petitioned the LPGA to increase the number of sponsors’ exemptions which a non-member could receive from six to twelve. Commissioner Michael Whan denied the request, but did open up Monday qualifying rounds at all LPGA events to non-members. This year Thompson used a combination of sponsors’ exemptions and Monday qualifying to play in about one-third of the LPGA’s tournaments. She also kept busy by entering a number of one-day tournaments on the Fuzion Minor League Golf Tour, a coed developmental tour.

Thompson submitted another petition to the LPGA earlier this year; this one aimed at waiving the age 18 requirement for membership. This time Whan consented, no doubt realizing the marketing potential of a young woman of Thompson’s obvious abilities. She then entered the first stage of the tour’s three-stage qualifying school in July, where she lapped the field, finishing 1st by 10 strokes. Before the second stage was played, Thompson made the trip to Prattville Alabama for the Navistar. One behind the leader after an opening 66, she added rounds of 68 and 67 to sit five in front of the pack with one round to play.

Thompson had led after three rounds back in April at her very first LPGA event of the year. On that Sunday she skied to a 78 to tumble down the leader board. But at the Navistar there would be no last round jitters. Thompson turned in an efficient two-under par 70 to break Marlene Hagge’s record as the youngest winner. It was a record that had stood for 59 of the LPGA’s 61 years in existence. Following that performance Thompson withdrew from qualifying school and submitted one last petition to Commissioner Whan; this one to be granted membership based on her victory. On September 30th Whan granted her request.

This weekend in Dubai Thompson proved her resilience. She entered the final round with a one-stroke lead, but fell into a tie with South African Lee-Ann Pace after a bogey on the 7th hole. But the teenager then chipped in for birdie on the 9th to regain the lead, and then scorched the back nine with four additional birdies to win comfortably.

So when the LPGA’s 2012 season gets underway, Lexi Thompson will be a 17-year old rookie with a pair of professional wins and a spot in the top 40 of the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Of course, it’s only been a few years since Michelle Wie was the teenage sensation that golf fans were talking about. But Wie’s career was sidetracked by controlling parents who were determined to prove that she could compete against men. It’s only been recently, when she has focused on the LPGA Tour and, having turned 21 been free to chart her own course that Wie has begun to deliver on some of her potential. Thompson’s family situation seems much more supportive. Her father is her caddie, and seems determined to keep expectations in check and allow Thompson time to be a teenager, two goals that are both healthy and wise.

The LPGA meanwhile, continues to struggle, often lost in the long shadow cast by the men’s game. The Tour’s popularity in this country isn’t helped by the fact that it’s been more than a decade and a half since the dominant player was an American. From Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam to Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa to Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, the face of the LPGA has spoken English with an accent since the mid-90’s. It takes nothing away from the greatness of those champions to say that American fans would like the chance to cheer for an American player at the game’s pinnacle. Christie Kerr was briefly ranked #1 after Ochoa’s retirement, and Paula Creamer was heroic at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open. He could never admit it, but my guess is that Michael Whan wouldn’t mind a bit if in 2012 Kerr or Creamer or Wie or the remarkable teenager Thompson played their way to the top. Of the four, the one with the most wins in 2011; make that the only one with wins in 2011, is also the youngest.

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