Lexi Thompson fans may now exhale; the 16-year-old golf phenom will become a card-carrying member of the LPGA Tour in 2012.
Commissioner Mike Whan made official what the golf world has known for weeks when he announced on Friday that he had exempted Thompson from the age rule restricting membership to golfers who are at least 18 years old.
Unique talent. “Lexi Thompson is a unique talent who has continued to grow, develop and mature both on and off the golf course since turning professional in 2010,” Whan said in a statement. “Her overall performance, most recently demonstrated by her win at the Navistar LPGA Classic, has currently placed her among the top 50 in the world on the Rolex Rankings. Additionally, her ability to handle the success and disappointment inherent to this game testifies to a level of maturity that I believe makes her capable of handling the emotional rigors of professional golf. Therefore, effective at the start of our 2012 season, Lexi will officially become a member of the LPGA Tour.”
Despite frantic clamoring by Thompson acolytes impatient for the LPGA to admit her to the club — complete with a “Let Lexi Play” Twitter campaign orchestrated by her sponsor, Cobra-Puma Golf — Whan could not grant membership until he received Thompson’s official petition. Once the golfer’s manager Bobby Kreusler submitted the paperwork on Thursday, it was only a matter of hours before Whan announced his decision.
“Clearly, there is great enthusiasm and excitement as Lexi begins her LPGA career,” Whan said. “I think her future is bright and I hope she makes the most of this opportunity.”
For sure, Thompson pushed the envelope with her recent Navistar triumph, an achievement that made her the youngest golfer ever to win a multiple-round LPGA event. She broke the age record set by Paula Creamer, who won in 2005 at 18. Marlene Hagge won the single-round Sarasota Open in 1952 at the age of 18 years and 14 days.
Cool under pressure. While her Navistar victory impelled Thompson to seek her tour card now, the way she handled herself following a devastating loss in April may have convinced Whan that the teen was ready for prime time. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption in the Avnet LPGA Classic, Thompson blew a share of the final-round lead, scoring a 78 and ending up in a tie for 19th. She impressed observers with her poise in handling media demands following her collapse
“[Lexi] composed herself and gave a remarkable live interview [and] signed autographs for 45 minutes,” Kreusler told us then. “I was genuinely blown away by her ability to do that. It showed a mental and emotional maturity that belied her age.”
Thompson certainly had convinced her colleagues that she was the real deal.
“She has kind of proven she can play out here,” 51-year-old Juli Inkster told reporters after Thompson’s win. “She’s proven she can handle the social part of it. I think they should give her full [membership].
Thompson burst onto the golf scene in in 2007, when, at 12, she became the youngest golfer to qualify to play in the U.S. Women’s Open. The long-hitting Floridian notched another historic first in her march through the ranks of junior golf. She was also 12 when she became the youngest victor in Junior PGA Championship history.
As a 14-year-old, Thompson qualified for her third Open and made the cut for the first time. That same year, she earned a Monday qualification into the Navistar LPGA Classic, shot a third-round 65, and finished T27.
Even with some early successes, Thompson has avoided the massive hype that accompanied Michelle Wie to center court. So far, no one has touted Lexi as “the next Tiger Woods,” and Thompson has no plans to tee it up with the boys on the PGA Tour.
That doesn’t mean the lanky blonde has gone unnoticed, and last year marked a turning point in the young golfer’s nascent career, both on the course and in the public eye. As an amateur, she finished T16 in the Women’s Australian Open and T24 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She also won a slew of fans when she went undefeated in leading her U.S. Curtis Cup team to victory over Great Britain and Ireland.
Thompson turned pro the following week and inked sponsorship deals with Cobra-Puma and Red Bull. Too young to join the LPGA, she earned sponsor’s exemptions into several tournaments. She again qualified for the Open and cashed her first professional paycheck after finishing T10. Two weeks after that, Thompson shared second place at the Evian Masters, just one stroke behind winner Jiyai Shin.
Her income from the Evian increased her 2010 winnings to more than $300,000 — a total that would have been good for 18th place on the official LPGA money list. That victory was the likely impetus behind her first petition to the LPGA that asked for 12 sponsor exemptions– double the amount afforded non-members.
Whan denied her application but implemented what could be called the Thompson Rule when he allowed non-members to take part in Monday qualifying events, essentially letting the teenager compete in more than the 12 tourneys she had requested.
Paving the way for Whan’s most recent ruling was Thompson’s successful petition in July that allowed her to earn her tour card through qualifying school. Thompson clobbered the competition in the first of three Q-school stages and, two days after winning the Navistar, opted out of this week’s second leg.
Youthful buzz. Her withdrawal made it clear that outright tour membership was a mere formality. And make no mistake; Whan is counting on the star power of the tour’s newest, home-grown member to bring some buzz to an organization struggling to remain viable after Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa retired.
Indeed, Lexi could be the female counterpart to fellow Cobra-Puma golfer Rickie Fowler — whose flat-billed Puma hats and neon attire attract youngsters by the score wherever he plays on tour. Thompson’s already gone the 22-year-old Fowler one better by actually winning a professional tourney.
The role of LPGA Cover Girl is one that seems to come naturally to the athletic and charismatic American.
“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 told ESPN.com. “There’s a lot of great young players coming up and on tour. Fans just need to see it.”