Kohler, Wis. – My, how time flies.
Five years ago, Alexis Thompson was a precocious 12-year-old and a media sensation when she became the youngest competitor to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open.
That week at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., the rising seventh grader spoke of spending idle time at PetSmart, her passing interest in the LPGA, watching the Disney Channel, and her hopes of making the cut.
You know, typical tweener stuff.
There was also that first tee shot.
“I teed off at 10,” said Thompson, who was grouped with Amy Yang and Angela Jerman. “I was the most nervous I've ever been over a shot. My legs were shaking and everything. I ended up hitting a good tee shot. I learned a lot. I learned by watching other players' games what I needed to improve on.”
She apparently learned well, because this week’s 67th U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run marks Thompson’s sixth successive Open start.
In the intervening years, Thompson has blossomed.
She has earned an intermediate driver’s license – and the keys to a Lexus courtesy car this week –attended her prom with a 20-year-old Purple Heart recipient, graduated from home school with honors, gained 22,921 Twitter followers (as of Wednesday) and has dropped the A and S off her first name, preferring to be called Lexi.
Oh, and she turned professional after a highly successful and scrutinized amateur career. In addition to being the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, a 2010 USA Curtis Cup Team member and the No. 1-ranked female amateur for a time, Thompson was often a topic for debate as to whether she was being pushed too hard and too young into the game.
This despite the fact her oldest brother, Nicholas, is a professional golfer on the Web.com Tour, and her other brother, Curtis, plays at Louisiana State University. Nicholas, a 2005 USA Walker Cup member, also has played on the PGA Tour.
Cristie Kerr, 34, calls Thompson a “seasoned veteran,” the face of a new-age of young players rising more quickly to the professional ranks.
“When I came out and I was 16, 17, 18, it was a really scary thing,” Kerr said. “They are just grooming these kids so early now that it's a business. There's a lot of money in women's professional golf now. I think that's really why we're seeing so many young players be so good.
“At 17, you have a coach, you have a mental coach, you have a trainer. When I was 17, I was lucky to have my parents traveling with me. It's a different world we live in now.”
Thompson’s world has certainly expanded.
In a span of three months late last year, Thompson, of Coral Springs, Fla., won the Navistar LPGA Classic and the Ladies European Tour’s Omega Dubai Ladies Masters Championship. The victories made her the youngest winner ever on both the LPGA and Ladies European tours.
Soon after her LPGA win, Commissioner Michael Whan granted Thompson membership for the 2012 season, allowing her to forgo LPGA Tour Qualifying School.
Winning at the pro level has given Thompson a confidence she admits not having had in her arsenal for previous Opens.
“I've just grown mentally,” she said. “I would say from my first Open, I've grown with length from just getting older. But mentally has been a big learning experience for me. So I think that's really important on an Open golf course.”
Thompson’s 2012 season has been a mixed bag of results. In 11 LPGA Tour starts, she has only missed one cut. On the flip side, Thompson has only a pair of top-10 finishes – second by one stroke to Stacy Lewis at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and a tie for fifth in her next start at the ShopRite Classic.
She ranks fifth on tour in greens in regulation (73.8 percent) and third in average driving distance (274 yards), but 129th in average putts per round (31.17).
“This week I'm feeling really confident about my game,” she said. “These last few practice rounds went really well. I just have to go out confidently and stay patient out here. Pars are good. So you just have to trust your golf shots.”
For contextual purposes, Thompson has played in more U.S. Women’s Opens (five) than 104 players in this week’s field, yet she is older than only 16 players.
Given her young age, Thompson, who turned professional in June 2010, right before her fourth U.S. Open appearance, has had varied results in this championship. She missed the cut in 2007, 2008 and last year. In 2009 at Saucon Valley Country Club, she was tied for eighth following the first two rounds and eventually tied for 34th. A year later at Oakmont Country Club, Thompson was in sixth place through 54 holes and tied for10th, earning her an exemption into the 2011 Women’s Open.
By comparison, two-time Open winner Juli Inkster, 52, who is making her record-tying 33rd U.S. Women’s Open appearance, missed two cuts and finished no better than a tie for 21st in her first five Open starts – four as an amateur.
For being all grown up, Thompson tries to remain young.
“Off the golf course you have to hang out with your friends, get your mind off your game or you're just going to go crazy,” said Thompson, who names Natalie Gulbis, 29, Brittany Lang, 26, and Jessica Korda, 19, among her friends on tour. “It is hard since I'm the youngest. They don't treat me any differently.”
Thompson’s mother, Judy, travels with her to most tournaments, and off the course Thompson tries to blend in like an average teen. She likes to shop, likes to hit the beach, likes to Tweet, still even likes PetSmart.
But success does have some trappings.
For her prom date, Thompson held an online search that was limited to military veterans who are part of the Wounded Warriors and helped raise awareness for the group. The winner was Mark Scott, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Active Reserve who received a Purple Heart in Afghanistan.
Thompson has also been nominated for an ESPY Award, and the winners will be announced on July 11.
Asked which would mean more – winning the U.S. Women’s Open or an ESPY – Thompson gave a noncommittal response.
“Well, both would be nice,” she said.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship websites.