U.S. WOMEN'S AMATEUR
Skylar Thompson's Remarkable, Resourceful Journey
August 3, 2019 | West Point, Miss.
By David Shefter, USGA
Anyone who has ever played golf knows the vagaries of the game. One day we have all the shots, the next we struggle with every aspect of it. It’s a game of imperfect that nobody ever masters.
Skylar Thompson has understood that since she caught the golf bug at the age of 10. The game’s inherent challenges never deterred her from her planned progression: succeed in the junior ranks, follow it up with a college scholarship and eventually reach the pinnacle, the LPGA Tour. That arc seemed to be taking shape as the Buford, Ga., resident began competing in local junior events and the U.S. Kids Golf Championship in Pinehurst, N.C.
Until one day when she suddenly couldn’t hit the ball straight, or sometimes, at all. Thompson experienced it all, from whiffs and shanks to chunks and skulls. Her father, James, said she couldn’t get the ball airborne. A promising career seemed to be over before it started.
“I lost my golf swing,” said Thompson. “I went from being able to make contact with the ball to not being able to hit it at all.”
Golf can teach many lessons, including patience and perseverance. As easy as it would have been to quit the game and pursue other athletic endeavors – volleyball and basketball were options – Thompson was determined to fight through the lowest point of her childhood.
Thompson switched instructors and relearned the game from the ground up. After eight months – the first six of which were spent exclusively on the driving range – Thompson finally regained her form. She went from struggling to break 100 to shooting in the 70s. She qualified for national events such as the U.S. Girls’ Junior (2015) and Drive, Chip & Putt (2016), where she finished second in the 14-15 age division in her final year of eligibility.
Colleges began courting her, and she eventually chose South Carolina before transferring to Ohio State in January after one semester on the Columbia campus. On July 6 at Brookfield Country Club in Roswell, Ga., she shot 2-under 70 to claim a spot in the 119th U.S. Women’s Amateur. This will be Thompson’s first appearance in the world’s second-oldest women’s amateur competition, and she hopes to be able to celebrate her 19th birthday on Aug. 9 with a spot in the quarterfinals.
“We’re super excited to go as a family,” said James Thompson, who caddied for Skylar at the qualifier and will do so again this week at Old Waverly Golf Club. “My wife (Julie) will get to see this one. [Skylar] is not the same player she was at 13 [when the swing broke down].
“This is truly an underdog story. A lot of people wrote Skylar off.”
When Thompson’s swing first abandoned her, many thought she was just someone who had the ability to hit the ball far. Always one of the taller players for her age – she is 5-foot-11 – the left-hander developed a power game at an early age. But at 13, everything unraveled with her game as a self-described “tight grip” led to a steep downswing and her “cutting across the ball.”
As a parent, James Thompson felt helpless. He had supported his only child ever since she first picked up a club at 10.
“You don’t hang a swing on an unplanted tree,” said the elder Thompson describing how Skylar’s game had deteriorated. “I knew she was at a very fragile state.”
Enter Chan Reeves, the director of instruction at Atlanta Athletic Club. Reeves, who works or has worked with the likes of 2019 PGA Tour winner Keith Mitchell and recent Curtis Cup competitors Mariah Stackhouse and Bailey Tardy, started over with Thompson. For the first six months, all they did was work on having her take the club back 2 feet and bringing it back through the ball. James Thompson would find sidehill lies so Skylar wouldn’t come over the top.
To keep his daughter’s mental state from relapsing, James constantly provided positive reinforcement, sometimes resorting to clapping or cheering.
“[Chan] told me we can do this,” said Skylar. “We worked on one thing at a time, step by step, piece by piece. I’d master one part before moving on. It was little improvements.”
Eventually the confidence returned, and good scores followed.
But as all this was happening, another challenge reared its ugly head, this one unrelated to golf. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Stage 3 tonsil cancer, which required radiation and chemotherapy. Not long after that, Skylar’s mother received news that she had cancer of the uterus, which meant undergoing a hysterectomy.
“I would go to the golf course to escape the stuff with my mom and grandma,” said Skylar. “It was hard for me.”
In July 2015, just as her mom was about to undergo surgery, James received a call from the USGA. As a first alternate from her U.S. Girls’ Junior qualifying site, she was now in the field at Tulsa (Okla.) Country Club. James suddenly had a difficult decision. Should he allow Skylar to go to Oklahoma for her first USGA championship or stay home with her ailing mother. Julie stepped in and told him to go to the U.S. Girls’ Junior. He still gets emotional about that moment.
“Either way, I was going to choose wrong,” said James, his voice cracking. “I couldn’t let her go through surgery by herself. Fortunately, my mother and brother were there to help her. She told me to take her to Tulsa and have the greatest time of your life.”
Skylar missed the cut, but it was a major start. That fall, she qualified for the Drive, Chip & Putt finals at Augusta National, and she qualified for the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball with two separate partners (Abigail Bolt and Smith Knaffle).
Prior to her DCP appearance, Thompson and her father broke down in tears during a Golf Channel video feature when recalling the trials and tribulations of her journey.
As Skylar, who has seen her mother’s and grandmother’s cancer go into remission, now looks back on the past six years, she has a further appreciation for the game. Ditto for dad.
“The journey is the fun part for the parent,” said James. “When you are in the fire and things are bad, it seems like six months is going to take 10 years. I know she is the one swinging the club but we’re going to enjoy the time we get to spend together more than anything else.”
Skylar has always been close to both of her parents. She has relished family trips to Alaska (where she walked on a glacier), and Italy (where she visited the Vatican, Mount Vesuvius and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) as much as golf tournaments in faraway locales.
And she’s doing the same with her new teammates at Ohio State. While battling wrist and leg injuries, she still managed to help the Buckeyes win a Big Ten Conference title and come within a stroke of advancing to the NCAA Championships in Arkansas. She is excited that three other current Buckeyes and a future teammate (2019 U.S. Girls’ Junior runner-up Jillian Bourdage) are in the field at Old Waverly. She’s also appreciative of her arduous journey.
“I just love golf so much,” she said. “This taught me no matter what I go through, I can get through it. Have patience. Focus on the small goals. [Six years ago] I never thought I would be playing college golf, let alone at Ohio State. It’s definitely taught me some important lessons.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.