Ft. Myers, Fla. - It would be impossible for a player of even Carol Semple Thompson’s brilliance to just wipe away the challenges the last 18 months-plus have presented, one by one, in three days at the USGA Senior Women’s Amateur Championship.
In that span, the thoroughbred Thompson, has seen some adversity, breaking her wrist in early April 2009, undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in April and being flummoxed by her game in those few moments when she has teed it up on the competitive stage.
“The last year and a half have not been my favorite years of all-time,” she said.
By now, though, Thompson has shown that there’s not much out of her reach in the game. It may be improbable that the 61 year old defies age the remainder of this week and adds another verse to an already-remarkable career, but not impossible. There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ when everyone knows who you are by your first name and you own seven USGA titles, including four Senior Women’s Amateur triumphs.
As match play opened on Monday, Thompson carefully dissected Fiddlesticks Country Club’s bold layout and used a steady approach to defeat friend and first-round opponent Marsha Butler of San Diego, Calif., 5 and 4. The two have known each other since their early-teen years and competed together in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
On this day, Thompson’s game glowed like the radiant Florida sun, as she cranked up the par machine to systematically take apart Fiddlesticks to post a wire-to-wire victory. She pounced on all her opponent’s mistakes in nearly every instance and won four of the first five holes – all with pars – to build a 4-up lead.
Even after her opponent won the par-4 sixth hole, Thompson answered to take the ensuing three holes to own an insurmountable 6-up lead after nine. She completed the surge by boldly - and courageously -playing a hybrid over the water-guarded green at the par-4 ninth hole, carving the shot to 10 feet left of the hole.
Butler settled into the encounter as the match wore on, taking the 11th hole with a par, but she hit only four greens in regulation and couldn’t overcome a nervous start in which she was five over par through the first five holes.
“You can’t do that against someone like Carol,” said Butler.
Those who know Thompson appreciate that she’s not in Ft. Myers because she enjoys southeastern Florida sunsets. She’s admittedly still fascinated and intrigued by almost every element of the game that presents a new opportunity with each stroke.
“I find it to be the most challenging game I’ve ever been involved with – mentally mostly – not so much physically,” said Thompson, who admitted she has benefited from mind-renewing meditation. “The mental challenge is what really gets me. I just love it, and if I can succeed in hitting a good shot when I’m nervous, that’s the best.”
Thompson. who reached the round of 16 on Tuesday morning with a 19-hole win over past USA Curtis Cup participant Patricia Cornett, was active in a variety of sports at a young age, but she grew permanently attached to golf, thanks to the influence of both parents, but especially her mother, Phyllis, who died last January.
“They taught me to be polite and to practice and to concentrate and try to win every match,” said Thompson, who grew up playing Allegheny Country Club, where she remains a member. “My mother was the more competitive of the two. My father loved to play and loved to compete, but my mother was the real bulldog. She just stuck to it and practiced golf all the time. So I always figured that if I was half as competitive as my mother, I could’ve gone places.”
Oh, the places she’s been. Thompson has played in 112 USGA championships; no one’s even close to that mark. In addition to her USGA titles, Thompson remains proud of the fact that she stayed an amateur. In the process, the World Golf Hall of Fame member has compiled one of the greatest records of all time.
“I was in a little niche of time in the amateur world. I started to play in the ’60s when amateurism was really important and people loved it,” Thompson said. “When I stayed an amateur, I became a big fish in a little pond, so I was able to make a lot of Curtis Cup teams. I’m not sure I would’ve been at the top of the LPGA Tour, but in the amateur ranks, I was able to stay, more or less, in the top echelon as more and more people turned pro.”
But she last competed on the national stage at last year’s U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, where she missed match play. Injuries hit and she served as chairperson of the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open Championship at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, so Thompson only started playing competitively again in July.
She counts her performance to date at the Senior Women’s as a renewing experience and the interlude in play as time well-spent.
“I felt like I wasn’t playing well,” she said. “My swing was a little bit off and maybe I was a little discouraged with my golf, so maybe it was a good thing to take the winter off – and the spring off and the summer off.”
The layoff afforded her the opportunity to work with her coach, Brian Aber, the PGA professional at Allegheny Country Club, to refresh the fundamentals. In her opening-round victory, Thompson’s efficient and syrupy swing was on full display, missing only three greens.
But this week is admittedly more than about testing her mechanics under pressure.
“I’d like to win a few matches. You have to go in thinking you’re going to do well in the championship,” Thompson said. “I’m not really expecting to win. If I did, it would be great, but I’m just going to continue play against par and be pleased with my ball-striking.”
Thompson is voraciously active and still enjoys fox hunting near her home in western Pennsylvania.
“That’s my fall sport – this golf is interfering,” she laughed.
Her joy on the course is still unmistakable. Healed physically, Thompson was asked if this week feels different from past championships as she enters a second round encounter against Pat Cornett of Mill Valley, Calif.
“It does kind of, yeah.” she said. “I’m very pleased. I’m hitting the ball relatively well, compared to what I was doing. It’s like a fresh start.”
In just three days.
“In just three days,” Thompson laughed.
Andrew Blair is the Director of Communications for the Virginia State Golf Association.