Can Alexis Thompson Save the LPGA?
The LPGA has received a priceless gift in the form of a giggly 16-year-old home schooler. A Tour that is starved for fan attention, marketing dollars and a charismatic American presence has had the good fortune of having Lexi Thompson fall into its lap.
Thompson became the youngest winner in LPGA history last weekend when she captured the Navistar Classic at age 16, dominating a strong field in winning by five shots. In the process, she grabbed, at least briefly, the attention of sports fans who wouldn’t know World No. 1 Yani Tseng if she hit them in the knee with a gap wedge.
Thompson’s remarkable maturity and infectious passion for the game could propel the struggling Tour past its tiny niche as a Golf Channel afterthought and into a legitimate presence on the sports landscape. Or at least ahead of the WNBA.
His enthusiasm tempered by the cautionary tale of Michelle Wie, whose too-much-too-soon saga and lack of maturity spoiled her premature arrival on the scene, LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan must play this carefully. He can’t hitch his wagon to a 16-year-old, but at the same time, he can’t ignore Thompson’s potential impact on his Tour and the sport itself.
Whan must weigh the Tour’s 18-year-old age requirement against its tenuous position in a struggling economy. In 2008, the Tour schedule included 34 events; in 2011, it’s down to 25, with 13 of them outside the United State. Thompson could be just the tonic this Tour needs.
Here’s a sample of what they’re saying about golf’s newest phenom:
“She is most known for how long she hits it and how far she flies it, but I think she doesn’t get enough credit for how smart she played today and how good her iron shots are and how good she is at scrambling.” — Tiffany Joh, who was paired with Thompson during the final round of the Navistar
I don’t want to be the commissioner responsible for freshmen in high school being in the position of having to decide their futures. — LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan, who will be forced to rule on Thompson’s upcoming petition for membership in light of the Tour’s age requirement that participants be at least 18
“She has kind of proven she can play out here. She's proven she can handle the social part of it. I think they should give her full (membership).” — 51-year-old LPGA legend Juli Inkster, who was the oldest player participating at the Navistar
“It’s great to have all these fans out here. If it wasn’t for them these tournaments wouldn't go along. Having the little girls out here just looking up to me, that's what I've always wanted. I just want to portray to them that I'm following my dreams.” — Thompson, on the fan response to her win
"They give up their lives for us, you know, saving our country. ... Donating to them, you just have to. I mean, look what they do for us. It's just amazing that they do that. I definitely want to give back." — Thompson, who plans to donate $20,000 of her winner’s check to the Wounded Warrior Project