Lauren Thompson, who worked on Golf Channel’s "Morning Drive" for about a decade was on hand at World Golf Village to host a roundtable discussion following the announcement of the new PXG Women's Match Play Challenge, set for Oct. 26-Nov. 4. Thompson, a PXG ambassador, spoke to Morning Read’s Jeff Babineau about her time at Golf Channel, the state of her own game and her early broadcast days in, of all sports, professional wrestling.
Morning Read: Why don’t we start with what you have going on currently. Post-"Morning Drive," you signed on with NBC Sports Group. What’s your new role?
Lauren Thompson: NBC Sports Group included the Golf Channel forever, and I had a show on NBC Sports called “Champion Within,” which covered all sorts of inspirational sports stories. They called it a kids’ show when they first pitched it for me, but it turns out it is more for teenagers. It talks about sports stars they have watched on the gridiron, the tennis court, the golf course … athletes who really put in the work, maybe dealt with some things that are uncomfortable topics, bullying, abuse, everything else. It shows how they got through that and how they got to where they are.
Of course, I was with “Morning Drive” and the Golf Channel for about a decade. I loved those days, but the company did make the move to Stamford, Conn. It wasn’t a move that I was comfortable doing, uprooting my entire family (she is married, with two sons) and going to somewhere with snow as a native Floridian (she laughs). So I stayed back and I joined up with GolfNow (an online tee times provider), which recently has been announced as NBC Sports Next. That’s the new branding for the company. It includes GolfNow, and includes Clubhouse Solutions, which is the majority of the work that I do. It’s video newsletters, monthly or quarterly, for private clubs, coast to coast. It’s a great thing for these clubs to use. We’re going to be growing that, from more content on social media to roundtable discussions. We’re just getting started.
MR: You are an ambassador for the PXG brand. The company announced two events for women playing on developmental tours that will take place at World Golf Village in late October, putting up a purse of $50,000. That has to make you feel pretty good.
LT: PXG, I’ve always recognized the brand. (Company founder) Bob Parsons has one of those voices, one of those presences in the game of golf, that you just can’t keep silent. He is proud about what he does. I met them face-to-face and really got to work with them last November at the PXG College Golf Showcase out in Scottsdale. That’s when I got a better feel for what the company was all about beyond the loud and proud voice that you hear. I saw all the good that they do, the inclusivity of the players that they represented – you’ve got Haley Moore, you’ve got Christina Kim, Mariah Stackhouse is another one, so many powerhouses. I love who they are representing and who they stand for. I love their mission in growing the game of golf for women and minorities. The fact that they are sponsoring this Women’s Match Play event here at World Golf Village does not shock me in the least. The second that newsletter went out, I was like, “Of course they would,” because that’s what PXG does. I wanted to be a part of it.
MR: For years, you were part of a television family on "Morning Drive," and all of a sudden the family was splitting up at the end of 2020. A sudden development like that has to be accompanied by a lot of emotions. What was that like?
LT: I’m not going to sugarcoat it at all. It was hard. We were hearing rumors at the end of 2019 that the company was going to relocate. I, for one, hate dealing with rumors unless I know what I need to actually worry about, until something is a little more concrete. I avoided it. I showed up, I did my job, and then I stayed away from the side chatter. By February, we all knew what was going on. That’s when Molly Solomon, our producer, came into Studio AP. We had all stuck around after the show … she was in tears before she even made the announcement. And I know how hard the decision was for them. It’s easy to get angry or frustrated at the move, but to keep the company alive, and to do what’s best for the company, you can’t argue with that. As people started to make the move to Stamford, I clung to everyone as hard as I could down here (in Florida). We all played limitless rounds of golf. We wanted to have fun. I’ve made the trip up there (to Connecticut) for a baby shower, because Anna Whitely is about to have a baby, and Cara Banks is about to have her second baby … it was truly, truly, truly a family. We have a few upcoming events where it’s going to feel like a bit of a reunion. Chris DiMarco has his (charity) event in Orlando, and just a few days ago we all were on a big text message. Charlie (Rymer, formerly on Morning Drive) is flying in for it, we’re all coming in. We love each other to the very end, even if we’re not in Studio AP any longer.
MR: When you all signed off for the last time on "Morning Drive," a few hosts got very choked up, but you were the final one to speak, and you were very upbeat and positive. Is that just part of your nature?
LT: The fact that Robert (Damron) cried, that shocked me. Robert is a very light-hearted guy, and not much gets to him. I love him because of that. We did that sign off knowing it was coming at the end of our regular two-hour show. We talked golf, we talked Tiger Woods and his son out at the PNC (Father-Son) — it was a feel-good show. But we knew the sign-off was coming. I am rarely someone who can keep it together … I had a tissue in hand, just in case. I was an absolute mess after that sign off. It was heartfelt, it was genuine. I brought a ton of champagne into Studio AP and we all did a little toast. It felt like a celebration versus a good-bye. I’m so proud of those years.
MR: I’m guessing that you won’t miss those early wake-up calls.
LT: My alarm would go off at 3 o’clock (a.m.). The alarm across the room – the “Ocean Alarm” would go off at about 10 ‘til 4, and then, you’ve got to get out of bed. If that alarm goes off, I’m in trouble. You roll in (to the studio), you’ve got a great crew of people, which makes it all worth it, and I’d be driving home by 10:30 or 11 in the morning, which is not that bad. As long as you’re a napper, you can do that schedule.
MR: You put your game on stage for folks to see at events such as the Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am in South Carolina this year. What’s that like?
LT: Sheer terror. I’ve played in a million pro-ams, but certainly not a lot that are televised, and not when they are following all of my shots, and where it actually mattered. That was facing some fears right there. When I first was invited, I wanted to say ‘No.’ But some of the most rewarding experiences in my career so far were when I said ‘Yes’ when I was terrified. So I figured if I said ‘Yes,’ if I put in the work and prepared the best I could, and then told myself just to have fun out there, it’s fine. I’m not out there making a living and trying to move up the Korn Ferry Tour money list, as the players were. It was interesting to see what they go through. It was exciting – I think you could see my heart pounding through my shirt. I didn’t know I was going to be playing with a guy, Justin Lower, who literally was leading the whole time (he would finish second), so the cameras were all over us. My mom flew in from Orlando and volunteered at the event. It was so fun. I’m signed up to do it again next year.
MR: Before you joined Golf Channel, did you have a background in golf?
LT: I went to the driving range a lot. That I liked to do. But I was a softball player. I followed the game. I knew who Kelly Tilghman was, I knew who Vince Cellini was, of course, I knew Rich Lerner. When I got the call for the audition, I was doing car commercials, and infomercials, and different TV stints. When Golf Channel called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m not a Kelly Tilghman, and I’m not a Rich Lerner, but I will do my best.’ I started on a countdown show called “Top 10.” That evolved into a travel show that I did for a while (“Destination Golf”), and that was a blast. When that show was dialing down – we had a 25-episode deal – I really didn’t know where I was going to go after that. "Morning Drive" called, they wanted to move over to Studio AP from the small studio with the bricks, where they had just the three people sitting around the desk, and we built this huge team, and honestly, I feel that those were the glory days of Morning Drive. We had Charlie Rymer talking about the golf game, we had Matt Ginella talking about travel, we had Gary (Williams) and Damon (Hack) and Kelly Tilghman. We had Annika as part of our team. We had a lot of fun. I wish people saw the off-camera antics.
MR: Tell me about your days on camera broadcasting … wrestling?
LT: It was with Spike TV. One thing that I definitely learned is that wrestlers are not just actors, they are athletes. I’ve seen them run through their matches, they rehearse like crazy, and some are literally hurting themselves like crazy. There’s blood out there, and EMTs everywhere backstage. It was such a community, and I learned a lot from them. When I moved over to the Golf Channel from wrestling, I had all those wrestlers talking. Booker T (now with WWE) was like, “You should see my swing! You need to have me on Golf Channel!” That was a lot of fun. Another huge learning step that I’m grateful for.
MR: Were there some wild days around the wrestling ring?
LT: We had some crazy stuff. They tried to write me into a storyline with this guy, Abyss. His personality on the show was that he was in an insane asylum, and mentally dealing with a whole lot of challenges. In wrestling, if they make themselves bleed on purpose, they call it ‘color.’ (And he liked color, Thompson whispers.) I saw him roll around on thumbtacks, take a cheesegrater to his forehead, and I saw them also light him on fire during a pay-per-view. No lie. The fact that he puts that much into his craft … that’s incredible. They had a few moments where I was written into that storyline … it was bizarre, it was fun, it was crazy. You go to bed at night thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ But it’s also so much fun that you can’t stay away from it.