NAPLES, FLORIDA | The CME Group Tour Championship is a snapshot into the essence of Lexi Thompson, replete with soaring highs and painful lows. The most accomplished American of her generation comes to the Tiburón Resort as the defending champion and as someone unfairly forced to defend a sparking resume some say should be better.
Lexi has been the face of America in women’s golf for a decade, remarkable for someone still only 24. She turned pro in 2010, won her first LPGA event in 2011, joined the tour in 2012 and from 2013 through 2019 has won every year, most recently the ShopRite Classic in June.
“My assessment of 2019 is that I had a good year, especially in the middle of it.” Thompson told LPGA.com. “I had two five-week stretches where I played really well. I had a few events that I struggled in, but that’s golf. You can’t play perfect all the time.”
But from the time Thompson first burst on the scene as a 12-year-old who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open, perfection is what fans have demanded, often letting her know on social media. And while, like everyone, Thompson falls short of perfection, she's been very good.
With 11 LPGA wins, including a major at the 2014 ANA Inspiration, Thompson is the most accomplished American among the twenty-somethings and holds her own among all active Yanks. Stacy Lewis, 34, has 12 victories since 2010 but only one since 2014. Cristie Kerr, 42, had 12 of her 20 wins before 2010.
The only active Americans on the career money list ahead of Thompson’s $9.9 million – No. 17 all-time – are all a generation older. No. 3 Kerr and No. 12 Angela Stanford are in their 40s while No. 8 Lewis is 34 and No. 10 Paula Creamer is 33.
Despite her success, Thompson hasn’t been without her share of disappointments. The past few years have featured some difficult times for Thompson both on and off the golf course. But through all of it, including health scares for her mother, Judy, Thompson has been a resolute warrior.
“I have grown as a person over the last few years, just mentally with learning a lot about myself and how strong I am,” Thompson said.
“Golf will challenge you in many ways and it will test you," she says. "That’s what I love most about it. I’ve learned how hard I am willing to work at my game and how mentally tough I am.”
Those who follow Thompson have noticed that growth as well as her grit. This home-schooled girl from South Florida learned her most important lessons in the cruel classroom of life.
“Her greatest strength is her ability to fight and her toughness,” says Jerry Foltz, who as an on-course commentator for Golf Channel has walked countless holes with Thompson.
“Her weakness,” Foltz says, “may sound contradictory, but I think she needs to be a little less hard on herself.”
The CME, which this year offers a $1.5 million first prize, the richest ever in women's golf, has been center stage in the development of Thompson.
In 2017, riding a wave of fan support that coalesced around how well she handled the disappointment of the ANA penalty – she won twice after, including the next month – Lexi arrived in Naples seemingly having domesticated the demon that has dogged her career – a wild putter.
But, as she was poised to place an exclamation point on her season, Thompson missed a 2-footer on the final hole that would have given her the Tour Championship, nevertheless collecting the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus.
In 2018, Thompson took a month off mid-season and sought counseling to sort out who she is beyond golf. She arrived at the CME with a new calm, greater insight – and Leo, a Havanese, miniature Poodle mix she found in a South Florida pet shop when she went in with the idea of volunteering as a dog walker.
Clutching Leo every moment she was off the golf course, Lexi ended 2018 with a win at the CME. Seemingly, Thompson has turned a crucial corner in her life. She burst on the scene as a girl of 12 and now is a woman of 24 at the top of her game.
Thompson's 2019 season has been rock-solid. She won the ShopRite Classic with an eagle on the final hole and was second at the U.S. Women’s Open to Jeongeun Lee6, one of three times she was runner-up this year. Lexi is in the top 10 in Race to the CME Globe points, money list, Rolex Player of the Year, driving distance and greens in regulation.
But again, there have been some disappointments. At the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland, Thompson was bothered by her back and appeared fatigued. She was 0-2-2 as the United States was edged by Europe 14½ to 13½, losing her singles match 2 and 1 to Georgia Hall and hearing about it on social media.
Thompson’s stats reveal that her success is determined by her play around and on the greens. She's No. 63 in putts per GIR and No. 135 in overall putts, averaging 30.77 per round, resulting in a stroke average of 70.39.
In 2017, when Thompson won the Vare Trophy with a scoring average of 69.11, she was No. 8 in P/GIR and No. 55 in total putts at 29.74 – 1.04 putts per round better than this year, or more than four strokes per 72 holes.
“From a game standpoint,” Foltz says, “the stats don’t prove it, but I think she’s the best driver of the ball on tour. And if she spent four-fifths of her practice time on and around the greens, she might just be dominant.”
Domination is what fans expect from Thompson. While short of that, from the moment she got her LPGA card, Lexi has been a constant winner and a great ambassador, signing every autograph, even after that painful loss at the 2017 ANA.
More than ever, Thompson knows where she wants to go. And as her vision of life has expanded, her focus in golf has narrowed.
“My goals for 2020 is to continually improve on my mental game,” she says. “My No. 1 goal for the year is to be in Tokyo and represent my country at the Olympics. I go into every event wanting to win, but I just want to play consistent golf and work hard and see things improve over time.”
Those words perfectly summarize Thompson’s voyage – she has worked hard and she has improved over time. All that points to the possibility that the best is yet to come for the best American woman golfer of her generation.