News & Opinion

Thompson comes of age in Women's Open

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Lexi Thompson has reached the point where she has spent half of her summers playing the U.S. Women’s Open.

That’s not necessarily all that unusual. Half of Juli Inkster’s summers have involved teeing it up at the U.S. Women’s Open; ditto for Laura Davies. You can even say the same for Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.

Nonetheless, this one might have been a little easier to sneak through unnoticed. Thompson is 24; she hasn’t missed a U.S. Women’s Open since her debut in 2007.

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Lexi Thompson, 24, who has played in every U.S. Women’s Open since age 12, is looking for her 1st victory in the national championship.

“I was just so excited,” Thompson recalled Tuesday. “I was practicing my signature on the drive up, and I was just so excited to be there. The opportunity to play at that level – I always say, when I made it at 12, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”

The week at Pine Needles was filled with autographs and photos, ladybugs – her lucky charm – and trips to the local pet store to pass the down time. She even made it to the weekend, so to speak, thanks to rain delays that kept the second round from wrapping until Saturday.

Twelve years later, the precocious girl in pink has become one of the most prominent faces on the LPGA. Thompson has won 10 times on the circuit, still signs autographs aplenty and will have one of the largest followings this week at the Country Club of Charleston (tee times).

At the same time, the past few years have tested her resilience.

A month ago, the Instagram star made headlines when she declared a break from social media, separating herself from “hurtful” comments by trolls who patrol the blogosphere. The break came days after a round with President Donald Trump and radio’s Rush Limbaugh, though her management team said her frustrations had been building before that event.

Thompson has resumed her posting now, though she’s no longer all that interested in what others are saying.

“Now I’m just posting and not really looking at the comments or anything,” she said Tuesday. “I still want to interact with my fans and post pictures, so I’m still doing that stuff. I’m just not as into reading all the comments or the direct messages.”

The south Florida native suggested she’s always seen social media as a positive forum to share how much she puts into her career. She’s come to learn that not everyone shares that notion.

“We’re not perfect,” she said. “We’re human beings, and we’re going to have bad weeks, bad seasons. We’re not robots. They can’t expect that much from us.”

It was only the latest trial in a series that goes back a couple of years.

On the course, there was the four-shot penalty she had to swallow at the 2017 ANA Inspiration when a TV viewer noticed she hadn’t replaced her ball properly during the previous round. Her lead evaporated, though she fought her way into a playoff before falling to So Yeon Ryu.

It was the first of three playoff losses that year, though those meant little when compared to her mother’s cancer battle in the summer. Thompson continued to deal with inner stress last year, sitting out the Women’s British Open as part of a monthlong break to focus on her well-being.

Thompson acknowledges that she sees a therapist these days to help channel her competitive fire. Though her run of six consecutive years with a victory is the LPGA’s longest active streak, she has won only four times in the past three years.

Last year, the streak was in jeopardy until the very last event when she pulled away from the field at the CME Group Tour Championship.

It likewise has been an up-and-down year for Thompson in 2019, with three top-10s and five finishes outside the top 25. Her past four starts have included a third-place finish at the ANA Inspiration and fourth at the Mediheal Championship in California – and two missed cuts.

One of those MCs came last week at Kingsmill Resort, a place where she triumphed two years ago.

“I’ve had some really good tournaments where my game has fallen together,” she said, “and I’ve had some off weeks.”

Thompson owns three top-10 finishes at the U.S. Women’s Open, including a share of fifth last year at Shoal Creek. She also was seventh in 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2 and 10th at Oakmont in 2010 – a mere three years after first appearing on the big stage.

“I can reach the fairways now,” Thompson quipped. “When I was 12, I couldn’t reach the fairways. I was aiming for the [walking] strips.

“I was star-struck by a lot of the players there,” she said. “I was like, There’s Lorena Ochoa; there’s Annika [Sorenstam]. It was an unbelievable moment to be there. That’s when I realized I want to play on the LPGA tour.”

Now it’s Thompson who draws the attention of younger golfers in the Open. She played Monday’s practice round with three amateurs, encouraging them to embrace the moment.

“Realize that you’ve worked very hard to get to this level,” she said. “Embrace the fans and the opportunity that you have to be able to play on the highest stage of golf. But at the same time, you can learn. You can learn where your game needs to be.”

Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Email: jeffshain@gmail.com. Twitter: @jeffshain