What do American Lexi Thompson, New Zealander Lydia Ko, Englishwoman Charley Hull, Thai Ariya Jutanurgarn, and Australian Minjee Lee have in common? They’re all teenagers, they’re all competitive golfers, and they’re poised to collectively lead women’s golf into a bright and dynamic future.
Some say the game of golf has lost its way, kidnapped by equipment manufacturers and sidetracked by celebrity worshippers. They claim the sport Tiger popularized has derailed itself, become too expensive for ordinary recreational golfers. The litany despairs. Pro golf has lost its glitter and excitement, some cry, and amateur golf has become a frivolous pass-time for the geriatric set, no longer accessible or appealing to young people who favor adrenaline-driving and risk-taking sports over a four-hour stroll through an artificially groomed version of Mother Nature.
The doom-sayers need to dig deeper and take another look. The PGA may or may not be on the ropes, but women’s golf is alive and well and has an exceptionally bright future. The LPGA Girls Golf program reaches out to 50,000 girls annually and is supported by LPGA Tour players like Karrie Webb and Stacy Lewis and Yani Tseng with personal time and money.
There is, as well, a crop of new, teenaged faces on the Tour, highly competitive young golfers who step up to the first tee looking like they’re posing for fashion magazine cover shoots and ready to drive the ball so long and straight that they take our collective breath away with their combination of fierce competitive spirit, laser-like focus, and youthful enthusiasm for the joy of the moment.
Despite the Girls Golf program and the LPGA Foundation’s commitment to encouraging girls to learn and play and enjoy golf, however, these young teenage golfers who feel they’re ready to play competitive golf as professionals face a number of obstacles, primary among them the LPGA rule that restricts Tour membership to women younger than eighteen. In successfully navigating and surmounting those barriers, Lexi Thompson has set a high standard for the teenaged golfers who are following her into the ranks of pro golf.
The Amateur Teen Dynamo
Lexi Thompson, at nineteen, is the oldest of the teenagers on Tour. She’s been playing professionally since 2010 and, before she turned pro, competitively in the professional arena, since 2007, when as a twelve-year old she became the youngest player ever to qualify to compete in the US Women’s Open.
She didn’t make the cut that year, nor did she make the cut in 2008 when she again qualified. But she sandwiched two victories between the 2007 and 2008 US Opens: the American Junior Golf Association Aldila Junior Classic and the Westfield Junior PGA Championship.
Thompson again qualified for the US Women’s Open in 2009 and this time she made the cut. She was fourteen and she was playing against Lorena Ochoa and Yani Tseng. In 2010 Thompson played as an amateur in the Women’s Australian Open and, still playing as an amateur, qualified for the 2010 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Now she was finishing inside the top-20 and, after representing the United States in the Curtis Cup, she decided her game was ready. In June 2010 Thompson announced that she was turning pro and signed sponsorship contracts with Cobra Puma Golf and Red Bull. Those sponsorships proved a crucial bridge over the age barrier on her imposed by the LPGA.
The Sixteen-Year Old Powerhouse
For six months in 2010, from June-November, now a fifteen-year old pro without status on the LPGA Tour, Thompson played Monday qualifiers and relied on sponsor’s exemptions to gain access to pro events. She qualified for the 2010 US Women’s Open, made the cut, finished behind Paula Creamer, and collected her first pro paycheck for $74,131. But Thompson wasn’t finished. By the end of the 2010 season she’d earned over $300K. If she’d been a member of the LPGA Tour, that would have put her at 18th on the Tour’s money list!
In December 2010 Thompson petitioned the LPGA to allow her to play in more than 12 Tour-sponsored events. Although her petition was denied, LPGA then changed the rule restricting access to Monday qualifiers, in effect telling Thompson if she could make the grade she could play. And play she did. At sixteen, she became the youngest ever winner of an LPGA event, the Navistar LPGA Classic, a record that stood until fifteen-year old New Zealander Lydia Ko won the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open.
Thompson’s winning game has always started with her drive, which has been simply stunning from the outset. Today she’s ranked fifth in the LPGA Tour in driving distance. She’s six feet tall and has always used every inch of her long, lean body to send the ball flying 270+ yards down the fairway. She’d already claimed that form when she won the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic, lowering her head on impact, finishing with a follow-through so strong that she comes up off her heels.
During 2011 Thompson played one-day events on the Fuzion Minor League Golf Tour, a development tour aimed at men trying to move up to the next level of pro golf, with some distance accommodations for women players, and attempted to qualify for a number of LPGA events as well. Golf is a game where we lose more than we win, and Thompson persevered through those failures to qualify and missed cuts. Then she won the Navistar LPGA Classic and the LET-sanctioned Dubai Ladies Masters, and based on those wins successfully petitioned the LPGA for membership.
2012: Rookie Year
It didn’t take Lexi Thompson long to make her mark on the Tour. She entered 23 Tour events, made 19 cuts, finished in the top-10 four times, and while she didn’t claim a victory she did bank more than $600K. LPGA press releases named Thompson as a likely challenger to Yani Tseng’s dominance on the Tour and she was nominated by ESPN for Best Record-Breaking Performance. She was ranked second in driving distance, second in eagles (eight) and runner-up for the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year award. It was a splendid rookie year for Thompson, and 2013 got even better!
Thompson started her second year playing on the LPGA Tour Rolex Ranked twenty-third and she ended the year ranked ninth in the world. She played her first Solheim Cup, posting a 1-2-0 record. She entered twenty-four events, made nineteen cuts, and won $1.2 million. In addition to six top-10 finishes, four of them in the top-5 ranks on the leaderboard and including a third place tie at The Evian Championship, she also took home two late-season victories, at the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. She credited her Solheim Cup experience with the mental game that took her to the top of the leaderboard in Malaysia and Guadalahara.
Lexi Thompson, an effervescent nineteen-year old who gave herself a white Corvette for Christmas, is starting her third year as a professional golfer approaching two million dollars in career winnings. She’s popular with fans and players alike. She’s played her way past age barriers to three pro victories and twelve top-10 finishes, and she’s leading a new generation of young women athletes with an enviable blend of panache and skill.