Lexi Follows Michelle as American Hope

Lexi Thompson, shown here at the 2010 Curtis Cup, is the youngest winner ever on the LPGA Tour. Photo copyright Icon SMI.

So, Lexi Thompson did what Michelle Wie was unable to do—win the Navistar Classic at 16 to set the LPGA record for youngest winner.

She has also supplanted Wie as the great American hope in women’s golf. Wie is still around, of course. But she has emerged from her very strange early journey to become something almost conventional—a very good, but not great, young player on the LPGA Tour. Well, not quite conventional, since this is Michelle Wie. She’s a very good young player on the LPGA Tour who is also still a college student at Stanford.

Thompson’s victory got me thinking about Wie, whose early exploits became overshadowed by controversy, mostly about playing in men’s tournaments. Strangely enough, I don’t think much of that would have happened if it weren’t for the fact that the Sony Open in Hawaii had a special pro-am day featuring junior golfers.

It was there at the age of 12 that Wie drew the attention of PGA Tour players, who marveled at her swing and the distance she was able to hit the ball. Tom Lehman called her “The Big Wiesy.” That led to Wie being given a sponsor’s exemption two years later—2004—to play in the Sony Open in Hawaii as a competitor (and that probably wouldn’t have happened if Annika Sorenstam hadn’t played at Colonial the year before).

Wie proceeded to nearly make the cut at a PGA Tour event—and that wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t have an out-of-this-world putting week (it was still an amazing performance for a 14-year-old girl). That showing led to her (and her parents’) desire to make a splash by playing in more men’s tournaments.

I wrote yesterday about how people hopped on and off the bandwagon of “Open Doctor” course architect Rees Jones. The same phenomenon happened with Wie, but much more quickly and intensely.

First she was hyped as the next great thing in golf, but within a couple of years she was being criticized for not playing junior or many amateur tournaments, for playing men’s tournaments, for receiving sponsor exemptions, and for being a product of hype who didn’t win anything.

While I do think her pursuit of playing against the men was misguided, much of the criticism was unfair. Wie received surprisingly little credit for the extraordinary feat of finishing in the top five in five LPGA major championships by the age of 16—including three in one year—because her critics felt she should have been “learning to win” against amateur competition instead.

Then came the disaster year when, bothered by a wrist injury she tried to come back from too soon, she completely lost her game and started shooting in the high 70s and 80s. When she inexplicably continued to accept sponsor exemptions and play against the men despite her sky-high scores, she lived down to the worst carping against her.

Wie could have gone anywhere from there. Who knew if she would ever get her game back? She did get it back—or nearly back. I don’t think she’s been quite the player since her return from the proverbial wilderness as she was at age 16. She has scored a couple of victories in nearly three years as a Tour regular—but based on her record in limited appearances she probably would have done even better than that if she had played a full schedule at ages 14, 15, and 16 (not that she should have been allowed to do so at that age).

On a personal level, Wie has become pretty darn likeable. As a player, she still hasn’t been able to win as much as her talent would indicate (two wins out of 11 top-three finishes since becoming an LPGA member and two out of 19 overall) and has struggled with her putting. She still could become a great player and maybe even something of a savior for the LPGA Tour, but at this point she doesn’t seem like the transcendent player we once thought she would be.

Thompson, like Wie, first hit the big time at age 12. While Wie qualified for an LPGA event in Hawaii at that age, Thompson made it into the U.S. Women’s Open. Thompson has been in the news ever since but not on the front page like Wie.

Thompson didn’t make much more of a commitment to amateur golf than Wie did—she claimed one big title, the U.S. Girls Junior, as did Wie, who won the U.S. Women’s Public Links. Thompson turned pro at 15 years, four months, and while some eyebrows were raised there was no firestorm of controversy. Wie waited until 16 to turn pro—but most of the noise around her was brought on by her appearances in men’s events. One wonders how things would have turned out if it wasn’t for that Sony Open junior-am.

It hasn’t received much attention, but Thompson has played against men, too. From 2009 to 2011 she has competed in 17 one-day events on the Fuzion Tour, a low profile mini-tour in Florida that allows women to play from shorter tees. They play from at least 94 percent of the total yardage, which is generally a little longer than an LPGA course, so it is pretty challenging for them (for a 7,100-yard course from the men, they would play from at least 6,674 yards). Thompson, an exceptionally long hitter (her average drive at the Navistar was 277 yards) won a Fuzion Tour event in February, shooting a 68 and prevailing in a playoff.

While Thompson has a big leg up with her victory, Wie actually played better overall as a 16-year-old. Thompson entered the Navistar having missed the cut in four of the seven LPGA tournaments she had played in this year without a top 10. When she was 16, Wie had six top-10s in eight starts. Thompson, to her credit, did earn a tie for second at the 2010 Evian Masters at 15.

Even after her victory, the hype machine isn’t quite going full blast for Thompson. That might show just how low the LPGA’s profile is right now, though it would have been different if she’d won the U.S. Women’s Open.

You would think the LPGA would be doing cartwheels about Thompson’s victory, considering what a boost an exciting young American could give a Tour that really needs a boost. They might be pumping fists behind closed doors, but their public reaction was muted, to say the least. Normally a Tour victory enables a non-member to claim a Tour card, but that’s not the case with Thompson since she is below the minimum membership age of 18.

Commissioner Mike Whan had already given Thompson a waiver that would allow her to become a member in 2012 if she made it through Q-School. After her victory, Whan released a statement that she still needed to go through Q-School to become a member, then clarified that she needs to apply for another waiver to use her victory to claim membership.

That decision will be made next week, but we should assume the reasons for the second waiver request are to 1) not encourage other players to try to turn pro before 18 and 2) follow proper procedures. It wouldn’t make any sense for Whan to deny her membership after a victory when he’s already said it’s OK for her to be a member next year at age 17 (her birthday is in February) if she makes it through Q-School.

No American woman has been Player of the Year on the LPGA Tour since way back in 1994 (Beth Daniel). It might be a little bit early to expect Thompson to challenge for that honor. There are actually a fair number of American candidates, although the current dominance of Yani Tseng makes it a tough hill to climb—Tseng could be headed for the same kind of extended stay on top as Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam, and Lorena Ochoa before her.

If Cristie Kerr keeps coming up just a little bit short, Paula Creamer or Wie can’t quite fulfill their early promise, and Stacy Lewis or Brittany Lincicome don’t build on their success of 2011, Thompson could be the one to do it, sooner or later.

That’s what Thompson has been groomed for, and she hasn’t become distracted like Wie by dreams of playing the PGA Tour or finishing college (not that the latter is a bad thing). We’ll see how focus plus talent can carry her.

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