No, Lexi Thompson isn't the slightest bit worried about the building pressure to be a sweet 16, blonde-haired, blue-eyed savior for a struggling LPGA tour that this year will stage only 13 domestic tournaments, down from 24 in 2008. "I don't read anything that's written about me," Thompson says. "It's not very interesting." She's not concerned about managing her finances, even with a burgeoning endorsement portfolio and a $195,000 check from September's Navistar Classic, at which she became the youngest winner in LPGA history in only her 13th tour start. "I asked my dad about the stock market once, and he went on and on forever, and I was like, O.K., that's the last time I ask about that," Lexi says with a girlish giggle. "I do know that when the market goes down, that's bad."
This is an article from the Nov. 21, 2011 issue
When Thompson tees it up at this week's LPGA Titleholders, her first appearance since the overpowering, game-changing five-stroke victory at the Navistar, she will be the center of the golfing universe, but her biggest concern these days is much more personal. "Hopefully someone will take me to the prom this year," she says winsomely.
"But all the boys are afraid to ask her," interjects her mom, Judy. "I think they're intimidated."
And why is that?
"I guess because of the whole golf thing," Lexi says. "Or maybe because I'm kind of tall."
How tall, exactly?
"She'll tell you she's 5'11"," says Thompson's agent, Bobby Kreusler, "but she's taller than that. She doesn't want that out there." Particularly to gangly teenaged boys who lack Thompson's self-confidence. Or height.
Welcome to Lexi's world, wherein our plucky heroine tries to maximize her superstar talent while remaining something like a typical teenager. That she is fretting about the prom is particularly poignant because Thompson doesn't go to high school. She attended public schools until 2007, which was the year she became, at age 12, the youngest competitor in history to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open. Thompson simply got tired of sitting in a classroom while the sun was shining and she could be out hitting golf balls, so for the last four years she has been homeschooled, playing golf by day and studying by night at the family home off the 12th hole of the TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla. She maintains a fairly active social life, including attending sporting events at the various high schools where her friends study. Alas, as of yet there have been no prom offers.
It's not easy maintaining normalcy as a member of golf's most extraordinary family. Thompson's brother Nicholas, 28, has been a pro for six years, collecting nine top 10 finishes and more than $3 million on the PGA Tour. He is a self-made ball-striking whiz whose putting can be so shaky that he's now laboring on the developmental Nationwide tour. Curtis, 18, is a freshman at LSU and has already become a mainstay for the golf team. He is a polished, old-school shaper of shots with a silky touch on and around the greens. "It doesn't matter how many trophies Lexi wins, Curtis will always be the most talented player in the family," says Nicholas, who is trying to get back to the PGA Tour by way of this fall's Q school. "Talent isn't something that can be taught. You're born with it, and both of them are blessed with an abundance."
The Thompson kids grew up at Eagle Trace, playing together nearly every day, always under the watchful gaze of their father, Scott, who was the co-owner of a business that made transformers until he left the company in 2007. (Judy still puts in long hours as the office manager of a dental practice.) By 11, Lexi was playing from the 6,655-yard blue tees, and by 14 her brothers made her join them on the 7,040-yard golds. They treated her as one of the guys, which is to say, rudely. Much as the pint-sized Tiger Woods had to ignore the tees his father would fling at him midswing, Lexi learned to block out the distractions of her brothers' knocking over her bag or pumping a noisy golf cart brake pedal while she was standing over the ball. "People say I'm a fast player," she says. "That's probably because I grew up trying to hit before my brothers could bother me."
Their matches were defined by an almost unhealthy competitiveness. Three Thompsons would set out together, but often only two returned. "If someone was getting beat pretty bad, they'd walk off the course," says Lexi. "We were really mean about it."
The result is that this ponytailed pixie developed an Annika-like determination that cannot be taught at a fancy golf academy.
"The kids would go play every afternoon, and at some point the boys would come home and relax, but Lexi would always stay on the range," says Judy, whose easygoing manner balances her husband's intensity. "I'd tell her, 'Dinner is at seven, and that's not negotiable.' But after dinner she'd often want to hit more balls. She'd say, 'Mom, I won't be able to sleep tonight if I don't fix my swing.' So when people say Lexi was pushed into this, we can only laugh. Lexi has pushed herself so incredibly hard from a very early age."
This want-to is invaluable, but what makes Thomspson such a tantalizing prospect are her physical gifts. She has the broad-shouldered, long-limbed build of an Olympic swimmer. (Her weight is classified information. "A woman never tells," Lexi said to the inevitable question ... when she was 12.) Says her instructor, Jim McLean, who has worked with many brand-name pros, "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!"
At the Navistar, Thompson decimated The Senator course, all 6,460 yards of it, regularly booming 280- and 290-yard drives, which allowed her to reach all four of the par-5s in two and hit wedge into all but one par-4. (She used an eight- or a nine-iron on that one.) Paired with Thompson, veteran Jane Park was giving up 40 or 50 yards off the tee. "I enjoyed watching Lexi smash the ball," Park says. "Her strength is unbelievable, and watching her play was very humbling."
Worse still for the would-be competition is that Thompson is only beginning to harness her latent athleticism. It wasn't until the start of this year that she committed to a more disciplined diet—"I love Oreos, but I haven't had one in forever"—and working with Craig Slaunwhite, the strength-and-conditioning coach for the NHL's Florida Panthers. One of his favorite toys is a wall-mounted cable machine with weighted resistance. It builds what Slaunwhite calls "rotational power." The machine uses watts to measure the force generated. Thompson can reach up to 1,300 watts. Some of Slaunwhite's NHL studs top out at 1,400. "Her explosiveness is phenomenal, but that's not the most impressive thing about Lexi," says Slaunwhite. "I can show her an exercise she's never seen, and if I demonstrate it only once, she picks it up immediately and with perfect form. Her motor skills and ability to acquire new technique are among the best of any pro or Olympic athlete I have ever worked with."
Thompson's smile is pure Madison Avenue, and she favors pink hair ribbons to complement her bright, feminine outfits, but the way she mauls a golf ball is reflective of the tomboy toughness imbued by her brothers. "I'm not that girlie," says Lexi, who drives a black Camaro SS with blacked-out rims and trim. "I want to be sporty and cool. I'm never going to be skinny like a model, and that's fine. I like being portrayed as athletic. If people want to call me powerful, that's great!"
Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez says that the ideal formula for an LPGA player to achieve popularity is "to look like a woman but play like a man." Which is why McLean, in a nod to the LPGA commissioner, says, "Lexi Thompson is God's gift to Mike Whan."
On Sept. 30, Whan made the no-brainer decision to waive the tour's minimum age requirement of 18, granting Thompson full playing privileges for next season. That she belonged was self-evident, even before her breakthrough victory; in 2010, in only six starts, Thompson would have placed 34th on the money list. (She was a nonmember of the LPGA, so her $336,472 was unofficial.) In petitioning Whan, Kreusler focused on Thompson's strong support system and the maturity she had demonstrated since turning pro in June 2010, at 15. Case in point was last spring's Avnet LPGA Classic, at which Thompson shared the lead heading into the final round but shot a crushing 78. Plenty of top players of either sex have responded to rounds like that by petulantly stomping past fans and reporters. After the 78, Kreusler gingerly asked Thompson if she'd be willing to do an interview for Golf Channel. "Of course," Lexi said with a touch of bafflement. "All those people watched me for the last two hours, why wouldn't I talk to them?" Then she signed autographs.
In announcing his decision, Whan was asked about the notion that Thompson will be expected to carry the tour. "She doesn't have to carry any more weight than the weight of her bag," he said.
Nicholas Thompson appreciates that various responsible adults are trying to temper the expectations for his kid sister, but he can't contain his bullishness. "How good can she be? That's simple: the best," he says. "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."
On a crystalline October morning, in a remote corner of Brooklyn, a dozen tattooed, black-clad, heavily pierced hipsters slouched around a swank photo studio, in the employ of The New York Times Magazine. At the center of the vast room Lexi sat passively as she was primped by three stylists, simultaneously. She was well into her second hour of hair and makeup. Judy was on a nearby couch, squinting into a smartphone and announcing Curtis's real-time scores from a college tournament in Louisiana. This was Lexi's first high-concept, high-fashion photo shoot, and she seemed shy and a little overwhelmed. When it was finally time to take the pictures, she walked haltingly onto an all-white set, slowed by a short skirt that had a dozen safety pins running up the back so it would fit even snugger. Thompson requested that the brooding music be switched to hip-hop. She knows the lyrics to pretty much every rap song of the last decade, and as Lil Wayne's raspy growl filled the room and the flashes started popping, this reticent 16-year-old was transformed. Thompson radiated confidence and glamour as she moved to the photographer's instructions: "Sway to the music.... Chin up, hip out, shake the hair.... Keep it moving.... Work your hips, girl.... Yes! So sweet!"
Judy scurried about in the background with a point-and-shoot camera, recording the scene so Lexi could post a few pictures on Facebook for her pals. When it was all over the Times photographer rendered a two-word verdict on his muse: "Star quality."
In the wake of her victory Thompson was making her second publicity trip to New York, and she was smoothly professional in interviews on the morning talk shows and with various glossy magazines. These short getaways mix brand building (not that Lexi would ever use that term) with a chance to be a squeaky-clean Carrie Bradshaw for a day or two. "This stuff is fun for her," says Kreusler. "It's every girl's dream to come to New York and star in a fancy photo shoot, right? When it stops being fun, we'll stop doing it."
Before he got into golf, Kreusler ran Wilhelmina Models. He's seen plenty of young women damaged by too much too soon, and his instinctive protectiveness dovetails with the down-to-earth sensibilities of Thompson, who says, "I enjoy all this extra stuff, but really I simply want to be a golfer."
Adds Kreusler, "For the last few years we've said no to 99 percent of things, by design. When you look at other prodigies—and by the way, I hate that word—the hype has tended to build much faster than their results warranted. That leads to more pressure and almost inevitably a backlash. With Lexi we wanted to let things build slowly, on their own. We want her career to be measured in decades. There's no rush."
No one around Thompson likes to hear the words Michelle Wie, but the comparisons are inescapable. When she was 16, Wie was either struggling to break 80 during much-ballyhooed PGA Tour cameos or suffering through high-profile rules infractions. Her parents were new to the sport and overwhelmed by the golf-industrial complex. They seemed to be making it up as they went, their daughter pinballing from tour to tour in ill-fated cash-grabs. Having raised Nicholas and Curtis in golf, the Thompsons have a clear plan for their daughter, and it always comes back to giving her a relatively low-stress environment to fulfill her awesome potential. To fill the gaps in her schedule, Lexi stays sharp by regularly playing one-day mini-tour events in Florida in which she is always the only female. (She has won one of these shootouts, lost two playoffs and, on one bitter occasion, finished third at a tournament that Nicholas won; by informal agreement, the Minor League Golf Tour doesn't publicize her appearances in advance.) Though it would create a huge buzz, the family is adamant that Lexi will never make a cameo on the PGA Tour. They know how good Nicholas is, and he's fighting to keep his job. There's no need to risk Lexi's confidence—and potentially subject her to ridicule—merely to generate a few headlines.
The Wies were geographically isolated living in Hawaii, but they also seemed to feel that the less Michelle played the more valuable she became as a commodity. As an amateur she rarely teed it up against kids her own age and thus never got in the habit of winning. She was an only child chasing technical precision alone on the range. Thompson has come of age as a golfer by constantly competing, either against her brothers, in smaller amateur events—she won the 2009 South Atlantic Amateur by 13 strokes—or in the big-time national championships. (She took the U.S. Junior in 2008, part of a two-year run during which she was simultaneously women's golf's No. 1--ranked junior and No. 1--ranked amateur.) "I believe competitiveness is not something you're born with," Lexi says. "You have to learn it."
Wie will graduate from Stanford next March and then, as a full-time pro for the first time, have the chance to live up to the expectations of a decade ago. It was a different kind of victory that she found happiness and contentment in Palo Alto, blossoming into an intellectually curious young woman with myriad artistic interests (SI, Dec. 7, 2009). There has been the inevitable hand-wringing that Thompson has no plans to attend college, but she's at peace with her decision. Last month she spent four days at UCLA visiting her best friend, Kyle Roig, a freshman on the powerhouse women's golf team. They stole away to an amusement park and did a little shopping—Lexi bought a dress that could be handy in the event of, say, a big high school dance—but Thompson's time shadowing a busy student-athlete reinforced her belief that "college isn't for me." She dozed off during an astronomy lecture, and when she joined the Bruins for practice at Bel-Air Country Club, she was reprimanded by the club's stuffed shirts for wearing a skirt that didn't go down to her knees. The thought of endless schoolwork and a heavily structured team environment leaves her cold. "I'd be miserable," Lexi says. "I like to do my own thing."
When Thompson's not at a tournament her routine rarely changes: After a big breakfast she gets to the golf course by nine and practices for two or three hours, pumping music through her iPod. After a big lunch she'll play 18 holes, unless she plays 36. Then Thompson works out in the gym for up to two hours. After a big dinner she does her schoolwork. Next May she'll earn her high school diploma.
The Thompsons bristle at the misconception that Lexi has always been homeschooled, like she was "some kind of lab experiment" in Judy's words. Judy says that the Broward Virtual On-Line School mirrors the curriculum of other Florida high schools, and she feels that in many ways it provides a superior education because of the one-on-one oversight from the instructors Lexi corresponds with on the Internet. Playing a global game can be its own kind of education. When Thompson was competing in the Ladies German Open in May, she visited the Dachau concentration camp, which she had recently read about in her studies. Other side trips are less sobering. Lexi got a big, wet kiss for her 16th birthday, but it was from a sea lion during a private tour of an animal park in Australia. The Florida girl saw snow for the first time at an indoor mall in Dubai. "Sometimes my life is kind of magical," she says. "I definitely know how lucky I am to have these experiences."
Blame Curtis if there are smudges on the TVs in the Thompsons' big, beige home. An ardent student of the golf swing, he has always liked to put video of his action on the screen and then critique it with a dry-erase pen. For Lexi, this is scarier than any slasher film. "I don't like to look at my swing," she says. "I don't know what's good or bad, I simply know how it's supposed to feel. I look at the target, picture the shot I want to hit and swing. That's it. I don't overthink it."
Why should she? "Lexi's had the same swing since she was nine," says Nicholas. "There have been some refinements, but my dad's not going to let anyone mess up what works so well."
Earlier this year Lexi suffered through her first real slump, which coincided with too much tinkering. In addition to changing her diet and beginning to work with a trainer, she had started seeing a sports psychologist while also making minor swing alterations. In July, after having missed the cut in three straight LPGA events, Thompson had the wherewithal to call a team meeting. "I said I wanted to forget all this new stuff and go back to practicing, just me and my dad," she says. "I can't think of too many things at one time. I need to keep it simple."
Two months later she made history at the Navistar, with her father serving as faithful caddie. Scott likes to keep a low profile and declined to be interviewed for this story, but there was no hiding the emotion that poured out of him after Lexi's victory. Judy was watching at home on TV, crying into the phone with Nicholas.
They are a close family, with each kid reveling in the success of the other. Lexi and her mom think nothing of driving three hours to cheer on one of the brothers. Nicholas bought his own house at Eagle Trace, four holes from his parents. (Judy has been known to mow the lawn for him.) When Nicholas is home, he tees it up with his sister, giving her a shot a side. When he's on the road, he rings his folks every day. Judy calls her daughter "my best friend"—when Lexi recently declared that she would like to live on her own by age 18, her mom shot her a look of such anguish that Lexi hastily said, "Uh, maybe I'll wait until I'm 20." For all the family's success, the Thompsons enjoy a good reputation in the cliquish South Florida golf scene. "I don't know anyone who doesn't enjoy those kids," says Mike Donald, the well-traveled runner-up at the 1990 U.S. Open who plays Eagle Trace five or six days a week. "They're simply good people. They were raised right."
Golf has been an avenue for teaching proper manners. Years ago Curtis crashed a golf cart at a junior event, so his peeved parents yanked him out of the tournament and made him return the next day to serve as a volunteer. Lexi has also been pulled out of a competition, in her case for pouting during the pro-am; she was ordered to stay at the hotel and do schoolwork while her dad went to the course to cheer on a friend and fellow competitor of Lexi's who had traveled to Texas with the Thompsons.
It's easy to fret about any gifted young athlete who is thrust prematurely into the adult world, but at least Thompson has a supportive workplace. "It's a testament to what a good head she has on her shoulders that she's friends with so many of the other players," says Tiffany Joh, the runner-up at the Navistar. "She has brought the same excitement to our tour that Tiger Woods brought to his. Lexi has that kind of charisma. It would be easy to be jealous, but she's such a sweet person you have no choice but to like her and hope she succeeds. Golf may be a selfish sport, but I think all the players understand how great Lexi is for the LPGA." In the wake of Thompson's victory a bunch of the players spontaneously took to Twitter to riff on the topic #WhenLexiWasBorn. (Joh's tweet: "I had mastered cursive.")
So far, there have been only minor complications dealing with the newfound fame and fortune. "After I won, a couple kids at home I barely know were like, 'I guess [lunch at] Chipotle is on you now,'" says Thompson. "That was kind of annoying."
Judy never worries about her daughter's game—she knows it will take care of itself, with the help of the rest of her golf-mad family. As Lexi is introduced to the wider world, this doting mom has only one simple wish: "We want people to know she's a nice, normal girl." Anything else? "Hopefully," says Judy, "this story will help her get a date to the prom."