Golf’s latest female phenom has no interest in teeing it up with the guys.
Being able to play full-time on the LPGA Tour is challenge enough for Lexi Thompson.
Two days after becoming the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour, the 16-year-old said she plans to petition for an exemption to the tour’s 18-year-old age requirement. That comes as no surprise to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who said he will consider any petition from Thompson when he returns from the Solheim Cup, which begins Friday in Ireland.
“I’m not going to be playing on the men’s tour,” Thompson said Tuesday when asked if she’d consider playing any PGA Tour events, as Michelle Wie did before she joined the LPGA Tour full-time. “I really just want to focus on women’s golf. They’re so good out here. You have to shoot 20 under every week to win.”
Or close to it. Thompson shot 17 under to win the Navistar LPGA Classic last weekend, making her the tour’s youngest champion by more than two years.
In the 15 months since she turned professional, Thompson has played 14 events, had three top-10 finishes and earned more than $500,000. She also is the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Open, as a 12-year-old in 2007.
Lexi Thompson poses with the winner’s trophy in New York on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
“I think they should give her full (membership),” seven-time major champion Juli Inkster said after Thompson’s victory. “It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? I think it makes us (the LPGA) look bad, too. Now, you have to go to qualifying school? To me, that’s silly.”
The LPGA Tour’s age limit is designed to protect players ― both emotionally and developmentally. Golf isn’t gymnastics or figure skating, where turning 21 gets you an AARP card. With most female players playing their best golf in their 20s and 30s, there’s no sense in a teenager rushing to get onto the tour ― especially if it might come at the expense of other parts of her life.
But Whan recognizes there are exceptions.
“I look forward to reading (Thompson’s) petition and we’ll figure it out from there,” Whan said. “But it’s obviously an incredible win. ... Lexi shows us that 16 years of age isn’t just the time to get your driver’s license.”
The LPGA already has shown a willingness to make allowances for Thompson, whose parents have carefully managed her development on and off the course.
She is homeschooled to accommodate her practice and travel schedule, but has ample time to hang out with her friends. She sees a lot of movies ― “I haven’t seen many good ones lately” ― and spent the night before the Navistar began gabbing about boys with fellow teen golfer Janie Jackson.
And while she said winning her first LPGA Tour event was “way more exciting” than getting her driver’s license earlier this year, she needed a second or two to think it over.
“I have the same lifestyle as a lot of high schoolers ― playing sports, just working hard,” Thompson said. “I have sacrificed a lot for this game but this is what I love.”
Though Whan rejected Thompson’s request for 12 sponsor’s exemptions this year, double what’s allowed, the LPGA did allow non-members to participate in Monday qualifying, essentially allowing Thompson the chance to earn her way into additional tournaments.
Whan also allowed Thompson to go through Q school, and said she would be accepted as a full tour member in 2012 if she succeeded in the three-stage process. Thompson won the first stage by 10 strokes in July. The second stage begins Tuesday, and Thompson said she is prepared to play if her request for an exemption is denied.
“I do understand and appreciate that Lexi is a unique case,” Whan said. “As such, we gave her kind of the green light to go to Q school and prove it the old-fashioned way. But her win ... is a pretty strong statement.”
Unlike Wie, who was touted from grade school on as “the next Tiger Woods,” Thompson is only now beginning to catch the general public’s attention. But she is personable and photogenic, and her deals with Cobra-Puma Golf and Red Bull could help the LPGA expand its appeal with that all-important youth market.
Just look at what Rickie Fowler is doing for the men’s side. Fowler is in only his second year as a professional, but kids are showing up at tournaments in droves wearing his flat-billed Puma caps and trademark orange shirts.
“I want women’s golf to be more well-known and to be out there. It is amazing to watch how the girls play and how low they shoot,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of great young players coming up and on tour. Fans just need to see it.”