With runaway LPGA win, 16-year-old Thompson proves she belongs on tour

September 19, 2011

I hope you get Golf Channel, and I hope you were watching Sunday afternoon. Right there, live on your HD TV, you had the chance to see one of the best golf moments of the year. Lexi Thompson, at age 16 years, seven months and eight days, became the youngest player to ever win on the LPGA tour.

The win was deeply impressive for a scad of reasons. When Marlene Hagge won an LPGA event at age 18, in 1952, it was a one-day event. When Paula Creamer won the four-round Sybase Classic in 2005, she was 18 — a full two years older than Thompson.

At the Navistar LPGA Classic, Thompson ran away with the tournament over four rounds on a big, sprawling Robert Trent Jones golf course in Prattville, Ala. The writing’s on the wall: the harder you make the course, and the more holes you give Lexi Thompson, the better her chances of winning will be.

The win was also impressive because Thompson has played some poor golf this year, missing three straight cuts at one point as she was fiddling with fade shots and getting away from her big, natural trap-draw shot.

Then there was her five-shot margin of victory over Tiffany Joh. Any time a player wins by a big margin — whether it’s Tiger Woods at Augusta or Rory McIlroy in the U.S. Open or Brian Gay at Hilton Head — it’s impressive. Not only is it impressive, it gets the competition talking. And talking yields intimidation.

But even more impressive than the size of her victory was the fact that she had a moment, late in Sunday’s round, when she could have folded after bogeying 11 and 12. On the 16th tee, Joh was playing beautifully and still in striking distance. Often in golf the best defense is a good offense. Thompson, with her father, Scott, on her bag, made get-out-of-my-way birdies on 16 and 17. If the door was cracked, Lexi slammed it shut. It was big time, the way she did that. She closed with a routine par and raised her fists like a thousand boxers and male golfers have done before. TKO.

Which leads me to the single best thing about her win. The proverbial monkey is off her back. Nobody — not reporters, not fans, not sponsors, not players, not caddies, not LPGA officials — can say, “Yeah, she’s good, but when is she going to win?” That question hounded Michelle Wie. Lexi has already buried it. She’s won. At age 16. When she needed to shoot a nothing-special two-under Sunday 70 to seal the deal, that’s exactly what she did. Like a pro.

For most players, a win would mean automatic membership in the LPGA next year, but as of right now, Thomspon is scheduled to play in the LPGA qualifying tournament. Because of her age, and only because of her age, she is not an LPGA member. The tour’s bylaws require members to be 18.

In 1996, Woods played his way onto the PGA Tour with his spectacular play (at age 20) after turning pro late in the year. He avoided Tour school. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has already granted Thompson’s petition to join the LPGA next year if she qualifies through Q-school, and on Sunday night, after the victory, the LPGA through its twitter feed said “Lexi has the option to file a separate petition for LPGA membership.” If that separate petition is filed, the tour continued, it “will be reviewed and a decision will be made at the sole discretion of the Commissioner.”

You can make a lot of arguments about why the LPGA’s minimum age policy makes sense. Under normal circumstances, 15 and 16 and 17 are the right ages to be in high school and not trying to make money playing professional golf. But the case of Lexi Thompson is not normal.

She’s home-schooled. She has no intention of going to college. Her father caddies for her. She’s built like a grown woman. She carries herself on the course like someone who knows what she’s doing. Whan would be wise to give her an exemption. Not because it would be good for women’s golf, a reason some people are already citing. No. He should do it because Thompson has earned the right with her play and her demeanor.

The slugger Jim Thome used to have a license plate that bore the initials DBTH: Don’t Believe the Hype. A smart thing to remember right about now. Hype doesn’t play in golf. It might get you a spot on a team as a young player or it might get you an endorsement deal, but it doesn’t get you the thing that most players really crave, the respect of your peers. You do that one way, really. By winning. It would be a mistake to say anything now about Lexi Thompson being the Great American Hope for women’s golf, just as it was insane to say after the men’s U.S. Open in June that Rory McIlroy would somehow now become Tiger Woods.

There’s no need to hype anything about Lexi Thompson. She’s a big strong girl. She has a down-the-line swing and gets up on her toes, bringing to mind one of the great champions of women’s golf, Laura Davies. She’s not consumed with mechanics. She has one brother, Curtis, who plays golf at LSU and another, Nick, who plays on the Nationwide Tour. She’s spent most of her short life trying to beat them, and sometimes she has. Now she’s trying to beat Yani Tseng and Paula Creamer and Tiffany Joh.

Talking to Golf Channel when it was all over, Thompson displayed a perfect understanding of how tournament golf works. When Joh got on a roll, Thompson said she thought to herself, “She can birdie all of them in for all I know.” That’s the right attitude. Assume the worst and do something about it, which is what Thompson did with her birdies on the 70th and 71st holes.

But the delightful Joh was the one who cut to the chase: “She’s taking lines on this course that not many girls can take.”

Lexi Thompson already had the respect of her peers. Now she’s got more of it. If you missed the broadcast, check out the highlights. Then you can say, in some manner, that you were there at the beginning.