Among the challenges of youth is that talent sometimes transcends age. Great things can be accomplished early, but only life’s painful experiences can mature that youthful skill into adult achievement. Last year, Lexi Thompson had more than her share of bumps and bruises yet emerged on the other side as no longer simply a young talent, but also a young adult of enormous skill newly equipped for the challenges ahead – a prodigy all grown up.
There is no more formidable force than raw ability wrapped in the scars of life. That’s when greatness can become genius; that’s when an athlete – or talent in any field, for that matter – can take their talents to a higher level. Last year, Thompson left the ANA Inspiration stunned when a trophy that seemed to be hers instead ended up with So Yeon Ryu after a four-stroke penalty on Sunday for an infraction Sunday.
“That whole week, I probably played some of the best golf that I've ever played,” Thompson said Tuesday at Mission Hills Country Club where this year’s ANA starts Thursday. Lexi walked off the 12th green two strokes ahead and teed off on No. 13 two strokes behind. That she birdied the very next hole, and three of the final five, to get into a playoff with Ryu, was an astounding show of fortitude.
“I had to dig really deep,” Thompson said. “Honestly, the next tee shot I was crying. Basically, every tee shot there was water in my eyes. But the fans were the only reason why I finished the way I did. I heard them chanting my name on every shot, every tee. I heard them on the green chanting my name, and I was like, I have to finish strong for them.”
After the playoff, Thompson signed autographs and fulfilled her media obligations, the full weight of what had occurred yet to hit her. “That night was extremely rough,” she said. “I was screaming, crying. You know, I've relived it for a while. I had nightmares about it. You know, I still occasionally do.”
But Lexi refused to let all that be a stumbling block, instead turning it into a steppingstone. Two starts later, she won the Kingsmill Championship and backed that up with another victory at the Indy Women in Tech. She also was second four times – including the season-ending CME Globe Tour championship, where she won the $1 million bonus for the Race to the CME Globe. And she took Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. It was a truly remarkable year, yet it somehow feels like only the beginning.
“I played some amazing golf [after the ANA],” Lexi said. “I just tried to continue that throughout the year, kept on working on my game in the off weeks. If I just kept on with the positive attitude and kept working on my game, I knew I could get through it.”
Thompson also made a major contribution to golf by prompting the USGA and the pro tours to eliminate viewer call-in penalties (there is now a rules official who watches the TV broadcast). The USGA also eliminated the “wrong scorecard penalty,” which many felt was the real injustice. Thompson was penalized a second two-strokes for not recording a score she didn’t know she made.
“I don't look at myself that I changed the rule,” Lexi says. “I'm just happy that the rule changed so nobody else can be put through what I was put through last year.”
That Thompson reached the heights she did in 2017 is made even more remarkable by the fact her mother fought off uterine cancer during the year – successfully so, but only after the specter of the disease loomed for months – while in September Lexi lost her beloved Nana, the grandmother who was her inspiration. That’s a lot of life to have thrown at you in a very short period of time.
“It was a tough year on and off the golf course for me,” she said. “I don't know honestly how I played that good of golf with how much I had on my mind and how much going on, especially with my mom, and then towards the end with the passing of my grandmother.”
Lexi is all about achievement at an early age. In 2007, she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at 12. In 2009, at 14, she made the cut in the U.S. Women’s Open and later that year Monday qualified for the Navistar Classic, where she shot 65 in the first round and finished 27th.
She turned pro on June 16, 2010 at 15 and finished T-10 in the U.S. Women’s Open as a non-member of the LPGA because of her age. Later that year, she was T-2 at the Evian Championship. When Thompson won the 2011 Navistar Classic in September she applied for an exemption to the 18-year-old age rule and received it at 16, immediately proving it deserving by winning two more times that year.
Now, the promise of youth emerges older, wiser and stronger. At just 23, Lexi has nine wins, including the 2014 ANA Inspiration. That would be a bushel of accomplishments for a 40-year-old and yet for this young woman it feels as is the bushel is nowhere near capacity. There seems to be more greatness to come for Lexi, accomplishments that no one can take away from her.