Fulfilling her much-anticipated promise at 19, Lexi Thompson became the second-youngest major champion in tour history with her win at the Kraft Nabisco
This is an article from the April 14, 2014 issue
IF YOU WANT to grow the game, forget about 15-inch cups and cute kids goofing around at Augusta National, and by all means banish the video of a plodding Matt Kuchar making a hash of the Houston Open. No, what this sport needs is more of what last week's Kraft Nabisco Championship offered.
Under crystalline skies in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Lexi Thompson, 19, was elevated from lady-in-waiting to bona fide superstar with a dominant performance that made her the LPGA's second-youngest winner of a major championship. To bring home her third victory in the last seven months, Thompson had to outduel Stanford graduate Michelle Wie, who at 24 is no longer a prodigy but a self-possessed woman engaged in a lonely, heroic journey to find fulfillment between the ropes. These two telegenic, six-foot-tall jocks have riveting smashmouth games, their ponytails twirling in the vortices created by their follow-throughs. But as good as the golf was—Thompson made only one bogey over her last 55 holes at a fast, windblown Mission Hills—they put on an even better show, defined by an excess of personality and sportsmanship.
In the end, Thompson prevailed because her ball striking was more precise and she was more confident on the greens. She also radiated a cut-throat competitiveness that Wie (winless since 2010) couldn't match. Don't let Thompson's Breck Girl beauty and bright, stylish outfits fool you—she is a killer at heart. Her swing coach, Jim McLean, says, "A good golf swing is nice, but there are more important things: courage, heart, determination, desire. That's very underrated by people, and Lexi has all of that and more."
TIED FOR the lead with Wie at the start of the final round, Thompson signaled her intentions with birdies on three of the first five holes, racing to a three-stroke lead. She played relentlessly perfect golf from there, putting together a bogey-free 68 that was the low round of the day. "She played amazing today," Wie said, ever classy in defeat. "She played probably the best I've ever seen her play. She hit the ball so well. She made everything. It was just hard to catch up to her all day today, but I'm really happy for her. I'm really proud of her."
Thompson's victory has profound ramifications for the LPGA, which has been looking for a new face of the tour ever since the double-whammy retirements of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa in 2008 and '10, respectively. Now, suddenly, there emerges an all-American girl who is the embodiment of Nancy Lopez's recipe for stardom: look like a woman but hit the ball like a man. Says veteran Tiffany Joh, "She's 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."
Wie's ongoing renaissance is also a major development for the tour. She struggled for much of 2013, her first full season as a touring pro, but found some momentum late, finishing 12th or better in four of her last five tournaments. She has kept it going this year; in six starts she has three top 10s and no worse than a 16th-place finish. Wie learned long ago to stop measuring herself against the impossible expectations of her youth. Now she takes satisfaction in the little victories. "You know, it was a lot of fun playing in contention, being in the final group," she said following a Sunday 71. "I think it's a sign. I think I'm getting close. I think I'm improving and improving, and getting second at a major, I think it means that I'm close. And I'm really proud of myself, and I'm really excited for the upcoming events."
Thompson should be, too, given that she'll be the favorite at the season's final four majors. Always a preeminent ball striker, she has worked hard to upgrade her short game. Maybe more important than any of that is a star quality that her competitors can feel. "She has a presence," says LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. "When she walks on the range, you know it. There's a Wow factor. You hear it in the galleries: Wow, she's tall. Wow, she hits it a long way. For some people it's like watching The Natural. It's awe-inspiring."
Thompson has been expected to do big things ever since she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open as a 12-year-old. The victory at the Kraft only ups the ante. Her path was shaped largely by having grown up competing against two talented brothers: Nick, 31, a six-year PGA Tour veteran; and Curtis, who was all-SEC last year as a sophomore at LSU. Nick doesn't try to downplay the expectations he has for his kid sister. "How good can she be? That's simple: the best," he says. "I've known Lexi was a very special talent since she was about six years old. 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."
Based on the show she put on last week, she already has.