U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Even in Tough Loss, Lexi Keeps Things in Perspective
June 2, 2019 | CHARLESTON, S.C.
By Ron Sirak
Lexi Thompson almost doesn’t remember life before golf. Since she was a pre-teen, the phrase “youngest ever” has been the courtesy title that precedes her name. She has lived so completely inside the golf bubble that only recently has she ventured outside, peeking at the world around her and liking what she sees.
Thompson qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12. She won the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior at 13. In 2010, she won an LPGA event at 15 and took home an LPGA major championship in 2014 at 19. She has toiled in the spotlight of celebrity for more than half of her 24 years, the blood and sweat mixed with occasional tears.
At the Country Club of Charleston, she had her best-ever finish in the U.S. Women’s Open, tying for second, two strokes behind Jeongeun Lee6. But it felt like it could have been better. Great ball striking the first three days faded in Sunday’s final round, perhaps collapsing under the weight of mediocre putting.
After missing only nine fairways the first three days, Thompson missed eight in the final round. And after missing only seven greens through 54 holes, she missed seven on Sunday. It added up to a 2-over-par 73 after three rounds under par and a 72-hole total of 4-under-par 280.
“I got off to a pretty bad start,” she said about making bogey on three of the first four holes. “Just overall wasn't as comfortable, I guess, over my shots. I don't really know why the reasoning, but it's golf. It happens. Last day of a U.S. Women's Open Championship.”
Thompson, who went to the claw putting grip earlier in the week on the advice of her brother Curtis, said she’ll stick with it. Her putting was serviceable, at best, requiring 32 putts per round the first three days and 31 on Sunday.
“I'm in a five-week stretch right now, so it's tough to actually grind and work on something, but I'll work on it for the few practice rounds before New Jersey next week,” she said. “I'm going to stick with it. It's a matter of getting a lot more comfortable with it.”
That comfort level is difficult to achieve for any athlete, but for Thompson, the last two years have been taken her outside her comfort zone in many ways, ultimately forcing her to reassess just about everything in her life. Seven of Thompson’s 10 LPGA wins, including her only major, came by the time she was 21. But it was at the 2017 ANA Inspiration, another major that got away, that life turned on Thompson.
First, she lost that ANA in a playoff after a four-stroke penalty – two for improperly returning her marked ball to the putting surface and two for recording an inaccurate score, a rule since changed. Two months later, her mother Judy was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Finally, Lexi kicked away the season-ending Tour Championship with a missed 2-foot putt, the Achilles heel she thought she’d cured.
The hangover from that hellish year carried into 2018 and from mid-July through mid-August she stepped away from golf, skipping the Women’s British Open, to work with a therapist.
“It was just much-needed time off,” she said about her hiatus. “I just needed to relax, hang out with my family, and just figure out a few things off the golf course. Golf is just a game. It's hard to say that, but you just have to think that. It's just what I'm doing.”
When she returned. It was with a new puppy named Leo, a new perspective and a victory at that same Tour Championship in Naples, Fla.
That entire week, Thompson was never without Leo in her arms, almost as if the part Havanese, part poodle was a furry reminder that happiness does not live only inside the ropes.
“I'm doing well,” Thompson said. “It's definitely a process. I've been working on myself a lot with just going to therapists or just trying to figure myself out off the golf course, because I'm not just the golfer Lexi. That's what I want people to know, and not expect so much out of me. It's hard to believe it sometimes because I do take it very seriously. I mean, it's been my life for a very long time.”
Then in a burst of self-awareness she likely was incapable of a few months earlier, she wrapped a very large bow around the elephant in the room – the road she has traveled.
“I've been in this game since [I was] 12 years [old],” she said. “I've been in, I don't want to say spotlight, but I've been in [it] since I made it to the first U.S. Women's Open. It's been a lot to deal with, but growing up, golf was always in my blood. I knew what came with it. Unfortunately there has been a lot of downs, but it makes the ups that much better.”
Indeed, Thompson did grow up golf. Her father, Scott, has been her teacher and she was home-schooled in part to give her more freedom for practice and tournaments. Her brothers, Curtis and Nicholas, are both pros.
Those close to Thompson say that while she handled the immediate aftermath of the ANA penalty with extreme grace, the pain grew over time. Then, a month later, she had Judy join her at the LPGA tournament at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia for a mother-daughter week together.
It was a fun time that included Lexi, in tandem with a Navy SEAL, skydiving onto the first tee of the pro-am, then winning by five strokes after three rounds of 65 and one ho-hum 69. The ANA incident seemed ages ago.
Barely two weeks later, Judy, who 10 years earlier overcame breast cancer, had surgery for uterine cancer, which has been an apparent success. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how the events of 2017 caught up with Thompson in 2018.
Then this year Thompson, who has always had a rocky relationship with social media, decided to stop reading it. She’d been body-shamed on Twitter, called an underachiever, despite a stellar record, and finally blasted for playing golf with President Trump. That’s when she decided that social media was too anti-social for her taste.
If she were on social media the night after the U.S. Women’s Open, she’d probably find naysayers yelling that she didn’t get the job done. But just as loudly, and in far greater numbers, would be those who root for this very likable young woman.
In the days to come, there will be times when Thompson will think about Charleston and feel like it’s a championship she let get away. But in those times, she’ll cuddle with Leo and smile. Now, Lexi knows that happiness is not only found in the numbers on a scorecard.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based writer whose work appears regularly on USGA digital channels.