Lexi Thompson Paul Smith Getty

Lexi Thompson Continues To Battle

Having found peace despite a long slump, the one-time phenom seeks an Open win for the ages

SAN FRANCISCO—

Want to hear something mind-boggling? This is Lexi Thompson’s 52nd major championship, at the ripe old age of 26. But maybe more surprising is that this overwhelming physical talent has won only one of those, seven long years ago. (She has racked up 13 top-10 finishes since that breakthrough at the 2014 Dinah Shore.) This is the enduring quandary Thompson presents: as unfair as it sounds, no matter what she achieves never feels like enough. Now, with opening rounds of 69-71, she’s knocking on the door once again, at the 76th U.S. Women’s Open. Thompson’s low-key demeanor calls to mind Dustin Johnson, and they have similarly uncomplicated views about golf and life. Following the second round Thompson resisted the urge to talk about what a victory would mean, saying,” It’s just an honor to be out here.” This is part of a calculated new approach to the game. “I’ve always been one to be very hard on myself,” Thompson said on Friday. “That’s how I grew up. I think to be the best you don’t want to accept mediocre, so you always have to strive to do better and keep on improving. [But] I wasn’t improving with my mindset on the golf course so I knew I had to change, and this week I’ve just had a lot of fun. I’ve made bogeys and I just let it go because it’s going to happen, and just trying to have fun with my caddie out there.”

The non-stop stress-fest of the U.S. Open is a challenging setting to learn to embrace equanimity. It is an especially fraught tournament for Thompson because the national championship has been her annual measuring stick going back to 2007 when she qualified as a 12 year-old pixie. Four years later she became the youngest player ever to win an LPGA event in an overpowering, game-changing 5-stroke victory, in what was only her 13th tour start. (Lydia Ko later rewrote history.) The expectations were monumental for a blonde, telegenic 6-footer who arrived on the LPGA just as it was cratering due in part to the 2008 financial crisis. Her instructor at the time, Jim McLean, did nothing to reduce the hype, enthusing, “Think about Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman in their primes, think about the young Tiger Woods; it was awe-inspiring to watch them swing the club. That’s Lexi. You stand near her on the tee and you feel the power. The sound of the ball being compressed—wow!”

Lexi Thompson from a bunker.

But Thompson has always had a complicated relationship with fame. When she was 16, mounting rumors in the golf world compelled her family to go public with an old secret: after Paul Thompson, the father of Lexi’s older brother Nicholas, died in a ski accident when Nicholas was a baby, their mother Judy married Paul’s brother Scott, who is the father to Lexi and her younger brother Curtis. None of the Thompson kids were told Paul was Nick’s father until they were around 10 years old. Lexi resented that her burgeoning celebrity forced the family to share with the world such a private story. Winning a major championship at 19 only made the spotlight burn brighter, bringing other issues to the fore. As Thompson would later write in an Instagram post, “One of the biggest issues I’ve gone through is my self image/ body confidence.” She admitted to “weighing myself constantly. I would compare myself to these stick-thin or fitness models on Instagram, tearing myself down because I didn’t have the toned stomach or the big butt.”

In 2017, Thompson had a brutal year: she lost three sudden-death playoffs; another Dinah win was snatched from her grasp late in the final round when she was slapped with a four-stroke penalty for carelessly mismarking her ball the day before, the infraction having been phoned in by a TV viewer; she blew a two-foot putt at the Tour Championship that cost her another potential victory; and Judy, whom Lexi calls her best friend, battled uterine cancer. (She seems to have beat it.) Thompson spiraled in 2018, W/D’ing from the Women’s British Open and taking a sabbatical from the game, citing mental and physical exhaustion. She is still finding her way. Thompson has 11 LPGA victories but none over the last two years. But she has a rebuttal for those who question her desire, saying she’s never worked harder on her swing, her fitness and her mental approach.  How close does her game feel to being back? “Definitely pretty close,” Thompson said, but she added wistfully, ”It’s up and down; golf can change day-to-day. You never know until you step foot on the first tee.”

During the second round Thompson rode a hot putter to a share of the lead until a couple of wild drives cost her bogeys coming home. Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez likes to say that the ideal formula for an LPGA player to achieve popularity is “to look like a woman but play like a man.” Thompson remains one of the LPGA’s premiere power players and her length off the tee and ability to slash balls out of the rough give her an important advantage on a beastly Olympic. The once familiar sight of her name on the leaderboard has not gone unnoticed at this Women’s Open. “When she catches a little momentum and gets a little confidence she’s hard to stop,” says Anna Nordqvist. “She seems to be putting a lot better. She’s always been a great player. She’s still a great player. The way she compresses and spins the ball, she can get to pins that most girls out here can’t. She’s definitely dangerous on a course like this.”

Even as a record-breaking teen Thompson did not like to talk about her place in history. But others around her have been less shy, particularly her brother Nicholas, a PGA Tour journeyman who has seen plenty of high-level golf. “How good can she be? That’s simple: the best,” he told me a decade ago. “People may be afraid to say it, but I’m not. I’ve known Lexi was a very special talent since she was six. You take all that natural ability and combine it with her size and the desire and work ethic she’s developed, I think every record in the book is in jeopardy. How old was Annika when she won her first LPGA event? [25.] Lexi already has such a big head start, she is going to do amazing things in this game.”

For Thompson, it’s not too late to become the player she was supposed to be, and this U.S. Women’s Open represents a monumental opportunity. But win or lose she seems to have found the balanced perspective that so long eluded her. “Golf is a crazy game and you can never perfect it,” she said following the second round of her 52nd major. “That’s why I think we’re all crazy for playing it, but it keeps me coming back out.”

–Alan Shipnuck

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