Has a star been born? Or will it prove to one of those meteorites that, due to their great speed, end up disintegrating in space?
The case of Lexi Thompson is, certainly, an explosive one: at 16, she has become the youngest player to win a US LPGA Tour event, thus breaking the record held by compatriot Marlene Haggem since 1952. The latter was 18 when she won the Sarasota Open. As for the men, the youngest to win on the PGA Tour was Johnny McDermott, 19 years old when he triumphed in the US Open way back in 1911.
Born in Coral Springs (Florida) on 10 February 1995, Lexi made history in mid-September in the Navistar LPGA Classic, where her 17-under total of 271 was five strokes than the runner-up – hugely impressed by her rival’s driving.
The photogenic young blonde, already 1.82 metres tall, first rose to fame four years ago. At 12, her name was in the headlines after she qualified for the 2007 US Women’s Open. Another child prodigy, Michelle Wie of Hawaii, also qualified to compete in her first LPGA Tour event at 12, but did not achieve her breakthrough win until she was 20.
In that first major back in 2007, Lexi carded 76-82 to miss the cut but she still made history as the youngest player to tee up in the US Women’s Open – the previous record having been held by another 12-year-old, slightly older than her, fellow American Morgan Pressel.
Also in 2007, Lexi became the second youngest golfer to win the American Junior Golf Association’s Aldila Junior Classic, and was the youngest victor of the Junior PGA Championship.
She played in the 2008 US Open, but again failed to make the cut. That same year she won what would be her only USGA Tour title, the US Girls Junior Amateur. She was the second youngest player, after Aree Song, to win the event.
The following year, at 14, she finally made the weekend rounds of the US Open, finishing a creditable 34th. She was 21st in a second 2009 Tour start, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Professional at 15
At 15 Lexi joined the professional ranks and was allowed to compete in seven events on the US Tour, missing the cut in two. Her best result was second place, and a cheque for $242,000, in the Evian Masters. It was just her third tournament as a pro.
Her victory in the Navistar LPGA Classic, in Prattville (Alabama), enabled her to ease the pain of her appearance in the same event two years ago when she shared the lead after each of the first two rounds. She could also have achieved glory in the Avnet LPGA Classic last spring, but sunk to 19th after leading overnight.
Her dream was finally realised on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Senator Course in Capitol Hill. Her father, who had caddied for her until she turned pro last year, was unable to hold back the tears after her victory.
The young winner accepted a cheque for $195,000 (of which she donated $20,000 to the official tournament charity, for soldiers wounded in war) with a nervous smile and a shrug of her shoulders. “This is so embarrassing!” she said. She was not shy about admitting she had burst into tears when she knew the title was hers. “Winning with my father beside me was the best experience.”
Golf and family have been a key part of the life of Alexis Thompson since she took up the game, encouraged by her father, at just five years. One of her brothers was a successful junior golfer and another, Nicholas (28), is a member of the PGA Tour and a Nationwide Tour winner. Last year, before Lexi turned pro, Nicholas declared that his sister would “do great things” on the Tour. Clairvoyant as well as pro golfer!
Lexi Thompson’s win re-opened the debate about whether or not it was appropriate for someone so young to be a full member of the US LPGA Tour. As a minor, she was not entitled to become a member automatically – the normal reward for winning a tournament. She was obliged to apply for a special dispensation as one of the requirements for playing on the Tour is to have turned 18. Her fate was in the hands of the Tour commissioner, Michael Whan.
At the end of last season, Thompson applied for more opportunities to compete on the Tour. Even though her request was denied, the Tour agreed not to apply the minimum age rule of 18 for her to compete in the 2011 Qualifying School. She passed the first stage of pre-qualifying before her resounding victory in Capitol Hill..
As expected after her agent announced that she would withdraw from the second stage of pre-qualifying, Whan was indulgent and approved her application to be a full member of the LPGA Tour in 2012.
“Lexi Thompson is a unique talent who has continued to grow, develop and mature both on and off the golf course since turning professional in 2010,” he said. “Her overall performance, most recently demonstrated by her win at the Navistar LPGA Classic, has currently placed her among the top 50 in the world on the Rolex Rankings. Additionally, her ability to handle the success and disappointment inherent to this game testifies to a level of maturity that I believe makes her capable of handling the emotional rigors of professional golf.”
The die is cast for the young star. Thanks to her psychological maturity and her excellent family structure, it is unlikely that she will suffer the same fate as compatriot Beverly Klass in the 1960s. The prodigious and precociously talented youngster’s childhood was destroyed by a father who beat her if he wasn’t satisfied with her results.