Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 18, 2018

Lexi’s Win Reminds Us That Winning Isn’t Everything

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be taking a short break while traveling over the upcoming holiday weekend. There will be no post next Thursday or Sunday. The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, November 29th. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all, and thanks as always for your support.

It is easy to forget that Lexi Thompson is just 23 years old. Because she qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old amateur. Because she turned pro at 15 and won her first professional event, a one-round tournament on a men’s developmental tour less than two weeks after her 16th birthday in 2011. Because she was tied for the lead after three rounds of her first LPGA event two months later and then romped to a five-shot win at the Navistar LPGA Classic that September, becoming at the time the youngest winner of a LPGA tournament. Because she closed 2011 by winning the Dubai Ladies Masters, a stop on the Ladies European Tour, making her the then youngest professional to capture a LET title. Because she’s been on the US squad for three straight Solheim Cups and hasn’t lost a match in the last two. Because she has nearly 400,000 Instagram followers. Because coming into the season-ending CME Group Championship she already had nine LPGA wins including a major, at least one win in five straight seasons, more than $8.5 million in career earnings and at number eight was the only American in the top ten of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. For all those reasons golf fans understandably feel like Lexi Thompson has been an important part of the women’s game for a very long time, so she can’t possibly be so young.

But she is, and the astonishingly precocious start to her career is no reason to forget the simple fact of her youth. For despite her enormous success on the fairways and greens of the women’s tour, indeed to a significant degree specifically because of it, Thompson has struggled, for a long time privately and more recently in public, to find comfort in her own skin and to strike a balance between the public role of a professional athlete and the private life and interests of a young woman not far removed from her teenage years.

Earlier this year Thompson withdrew from the Ricoh Women’s British Open, one of five women’s majors, and announced that she was taking a break from competitive play to “work on myself.” On social media Thompson explained that she had “not truly felt like myself for quite come time,” and was “taking this time to recharge my mental batteries, and to focus on myself away from the game of professional golf.” At the time commentators noted that over the previous eighteen months Thompson had dealt with both her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the death of her paternal grandmother. More recently she revealed a long struggle with body image that led her to pursue an extreme workout regimen while privately tearing herself down for, in her mind at least, not comparing favorably to stick-thin models.

On the course even while she was posting a pair of wins in 2017 Thompson was dealing with plenty of adversity. Early last season she was headed toward a second major title at the ANA Inspiration until she became one more victim of a fan sitting at home with too much time on his or her hands. During the fourth round of the tournament the LPGA received an email from a television viewer complaining that Thompson had failed to replace her ball in the exact same position after marking on a green during the previous day’s round. When reviews of videotape determined that Thompson had in fact committed the infraction by less than an inch, the Tour assessed a four-shot penalty, two for the sin itself and two more for then signing for an incorrect score after her third round. Fighting back tears the rest of the way, Thompson ultimately lost the tournament in sudden death.

Then earlier this season, after returning from her self-imposed break, Thompson was again emotional when she missed the cut at the Evian Championship, her first missed cut at a major in five years. Just before the start of the CME Group Championship she announced a parting of the ways with caddie Kevin McAlpine. All that turmoil only underscored the fact that Thompson arrived at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida, winless in 2018.

But she professed her love for this season-ending tournament in a media session during the week, largely because it’s played within driving distance of her home in Coral Springs, which guarantees both family members and plenty of friends and supportive fans in the crowd. Yet as the tournament got underway it was hard not to feel that her affection was misplaced. For Tiburon was the site of Thompson’s most painful moment in the tumultuous past year and a half. She stood on the 18th green in the final round at last year’s CME, surveying a two-foot putt for par. Knock it in and she finishes one stroke ahead of Ariya Jutanagarn, who was playing behind her. A win would mean not just the $500,000 first prize and well as the $1 million bonus for taking the season-long points race, but also the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, the LPGA Player of the Year Award, and the number one spot in the world rankings.

Thompson’s putt barely grazed the right side of the hole, spinning out and drastically changing the story of her season. While she ultimately won the bonus money and the scoring trophy, the tournament went to Jutanagarn, the Player of the Year Award went jointly to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park, and the chance to become the first American world number one in more than four years was gone a-glimmering.

Or perhaps Thompson knew what she was talking about after all. With her older brother Curtis on the bag she opened with a 7-under par round of 65, leaving her just two off the lead of Amy Olson. After signing her scorecard Thompson said “Golf is just a game. It’s hard to say that, but you have to think that. It’s just what I’m doing.” The comment reflected her determined effort to find a new balance in her life. She claimed progress, saying “I’ve been working on myself a lot, with going to therapists, or just trying to figure myself out, off the golf course, because I’m not just the golfer Lexi.”

Fans should root for Thompson’s continued success at defining herself off the course in whatever way she desires, while also being heartened by her play this week. Proving Tiburon held no demons for her, she followed her opening round with a 67 on Friday to pull into a three-shot lead. That margin held through Saturday, when Thompson posted a 4-under 68. Sunday, she played a strategic round, opting for 3-wood off several tees to avoid trouble. By the time she came back to the 18th green, the scene of Sunday tears one year ago, Thompson was all smiles as she waved to the supportive crowd and closed out a four-shot victory, extending her streak of consecutive years with a win to six, the longest among active players. Even as they cheer for her victory, fans should also hope that some of the reasons the still very young Lexi Thompson was smiling had absolutely nothing to do with golf.

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Responses

  1. Another great look at the person behind the sport, Mike. We’re all subject to being known as the __ guy/gal and, as you have illustrated, it is a monumental problem for athletes. She deserves a lot of credit, on and off the links, for making the effort to come to grips with who she is as a person. Some of us never get there, and she has her whole life ahead of herself. Good for her.

    Have a safe and happy holiday, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. What has impressed me most about Lexi Thompson is her willingness to be open and candid about her personal struggles. Hopefully that is both therapeutic for her and helpful to people whose names will never be in the news but who wrestle with the same issues.

      A very happy Thanksgiving to you as well,
      M-

      • Great point, Mike.
        Ω


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