The most interesting round of professional golf last Sunday was not Bubba Watson’s 69 that set up his playoff win at the Tour’s New Orleans stop. It was not Lee Westwood’s 67 that sealed the deal for his second straight win, this one in South Korea. It was not Maria Hjorth’s excellent 67 that allowed her to come from four shots back to win the LPGA event in Mobile. Good stuff, all of it.
But there was a Sunday round of golf with way higher stakes, a round that had the potential to introduce millions of people to the most exciting young player in women’s golf today, Lexi Thompson. Thompson is 16. Sixteen! And she was tied for the lead in the Alabama event, the Avnet Classic, through three rounds. Tied for the lead! She was trying to become the youngest player ever to win an LPGA event, a tour she cannot even join until she turns 18. A round of 68 would have done it and Lexi Thompson, with her incredible length, can shoot 68 on any 6,300-yard course with a driver, a wedge and a putter.
Her actual Sunday score, 78, with a rough start and a rough finish, is one more example of the mental gymnastics any golfer trying to achieve any new thing endures. “It’s golf,” Lexi said on TV right after it was over. Anyone who plays knows how much ground she covered in those two short words.
Anyway, her future is all ahead of her. Thompson played in her first U.S. Open at age 12 and she finished in a tie for tenth last year at the Open at age 15. She can only play in LPGA events this year by Monday qualifying for them or through sponsors’ exemptions. The LPGA Championship, in its wisdom, has given her an exemption. She’s home-schooled, she’s been a pro for a year, she’s not going to college. Her life is golf.
Her father, Scott Thompson, caddied for her in Alabama. Some will say that she should have a professional caddie on her bag, and surely someday she will. But does she need anybody caddying for her now other than her father? Absolutely not. He’s with her virtually every day when Lexi plays or practices at Eagle Trace in South Florida. He knows her swing backwards and forwards, just as he does his two sons, Nick, who plays on the Nationwide Tour, and Curtis, who plays for LSU, where he’s a freshman. His price is right—free—and father and daughter have a good on-course rapport. Scott Thompson is no preppy country-club golf dad. He’s an aggressive guy who stands his ground and who will do whatever he can to help his daughter become more successful in golf.
He was a regular 75 shooter, or better, when he quit playing seven years ago because Lexi, at age nine, was already beating him like a drum. “That ain’t fun,” he told me in March. But the main reason he stopped playing was so that he could devote even more time to Lexi’s development. Nobody questions his devotion.
Look what he’s done in just the past two months. He took Lexi to see a sports psychologist, not a move you would necessarily expect from an old-schooler like Scott Thompson. He told a golf website to lose its old, dated photo of Lexi, from when she was still wearing braces. He has spent many hours with the Cobra equipment people, making sure Lexi has the right 14 clubs in her bag. He has caddied for her in Florida mini-tour events. He flew with her to Los Angeles when Lexi tried, unsuccessfully, to qualify for the April LPGA event there, at City of Industry. And let’s not forget about Lexi’s mother, Judy, who makes and packs the sandwiches Lexi eats on the golf course, who launders her clothes and who gave her a path to golf. She played junior golf in South Florida, introduced her first-born, Nick, to the game. Curtis followed Nick to the course and Lexi followed both of them.
But the most impressive thing that Scott did for Lexi, at least that I know about, really has little to do with golf and everything to do with parenting, and helps explain why, when she was shooting 78 on Sunday when she desperately wanted to be shooting 68, Lexi Thompson still showed poise beyond her years. Not that she didn’t show her years. On a back-nine par-3, with her ball looking to clear a water hazard, she yelled, “Get up!” The ball pitched on the bank and rolled into the water. She responded with a thumb’s up, a fine display of teenage sarcasm.
OK, so here’s the big thing Scott Thompson did for his daughter. This was a few years ago. She was a phenom, truly. She had already played in the 2007 U.S. Open at age 12. Now she was a teenager, and Scott took his daughter and another junior player, a close friend of Lexi’s, to a big junior event in Texas. There was a one-day event before the tournament, a fundraiser in which the junior golfers played with amateurs. Scott didn’t like what he was seeing. Lexi was tossing clubs, kicking turf, acting grumpy, being rude.
He took her out of the tournament. He wasn’t going to let her play, acting like she was acting. He placed his responsibilities as a father ahead of his responsibilities as a golf father.
The friend played. Lexi sat in the hotel and stewed.
“Plane tickets, car rental, hotel, it was a lot of money,” Scott Thompson said. But it wasn’t money down the drain. The father’s never seen an attitude problem from Lexi since then, not a serious one. She’s feisty, like he is. She’s a live wire. But she’s not a golf brat. Which is critical, because nobody will root for a golf brat. If and when she starts playing full time and winning regularly, she could be a big part of the solution for what ails the LPGA. You’d pay money to watch her. I would have paid to watch her play that round in Mobile on Sunday, no matter what she shot. Lots of us, surely, feel the same thing.