It feels like Lexi Thompson’s 2017 season alone has had enough drama to fill an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary. Her four-stroke penalty for incorrectly marking her ball at the ANA Inspiration set off a firestorm of controversy and instantly turned a final-round, two-stroke lead into a two-shot deficit. She would go to tie So Yeon Ryu on a 72nd hole that saw her reach the par five’s green in two, fight back tears as the gallery chanted “Lex-i!, Lex-i!” and miss an emotional eagle putt that would have secured her second major title. When Ryu won with a birdie on the first playoff hole, Thompson’s hard-fought, bittersweet day turned simply bitter.
She rebounded two months later with a 20-under-par display to win the Kingsmill Championship and quiet some demons. “I’m so over (the rules fiasco at the ANA). It’s in the past. It’s unfortunate what happened, but it’s time to move on. (Winning at Kingsmill) puts a lid on it,” she said.
Quiet off the course but fierce on it, Thompson has collected two wins and five second-place finishes this season on her ascent to #1 in the Race to CME Globe Championship standings and the #3 spot on the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Pundits regularly stress that Thompson is the only American player in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings, but she’s in no rush to be called America’s Great Hope. “I think it just shows the amount of global talent that’s out here. Each and every year we get a group of rookies that comes out and (often) contends right away.”
After falling four down in her singles match with Europe’s Anna Nordqvist, Thompson electrified the crowd at August’s Solheim Cup Matches with an eight-under run on a seven-hole stretch (on the strength of two eagles) to temporarily pull ahead. Nordqvist squared the match on the final hole, but Thompson solidified her role as a team leader and frontrunner as the U.S. Team cruised to victory.
“That back nine was definitely some of the best golf I’ve ever played in my life; some of my best shots I’ve hit in my career,” she says.
Thompson, 22, stands out as one of the LPGA Tour’s longest hitters and best ball strikers and she’s quickly become one the game’s most marketable talents, having secured endorsements with Red Bull, Puma, Zurich and EA Sports. OTL caught up with Thompson to reflect on her eventful season and career:
Are you more confident now than you’ve ever been with your game?
I think my game is in a great spot. I do think I’ve gained a lot of confidence over the past couple of seasons. I go into every tournament wanting to win, having that fire power. Obviously, being an American, winning our championship is high on my list of goals now. I would say in the past, I would get really frustrated and get too focused in between shots. I’m always worried about the next one, but really I just have to focus for those little 30 seconds over the shot and just relax in between.
What are you most proud of in terms of the progress you’ve made with your game?
In my off season, I work extremely hard on my short game of putting. I put at least three to four hours in a day about it. I knew that’s what I needed to work on. It’s given me a lot of confidence. It’s great to feel like I’m lined up right and then all I have to do was put a good stroke on it. I like that we golf courses on our schedule that suit my long game and ball-striking. Being able to trust my driver can be a huge lift.
What has this wild season taught you?
It’s definitely been a crazy, up-and-down year. Definitely a lot of emotions behind it. I think I’ve just learned overall just how strong I am, going through the whole year and things that have happened. But I think that’s what helped, knowing my mom (who battled cancer for the second time and is now out of treatment) is back to being healthy. I think that’s helped me out a lot, and just being with her every day when I do go home.
She’s the strongest woman I know and I always say I want to be half the woman that she is when I grow up and she’s been a role model of mine and, like I said, she’s my best friend and great to have her out here supporting me.
What was different about your game or approach the week you won your first major (the 2014 ANA Inspiration)?
Going into the week, I figured something out in just a few practice rounds. Just hitting “control shots” and little punches, keeping my line and not really drawing it too much. The last day, I was kind of in my own little world. I was really focused and it was a really relaxed week. I just tried to have fun and swing and laugh. When I’m relaxed out there, I think that’s when my game shows the most.
You grew up in a golfing family and now both of your older brothers play professionally. How much did competing with them drive you and shape the player that you’ve become?
Immensely. Trying to beat them, outdrive them and just always having them around to know that I can go to them for help, or pretty much anything, has made me a much better a player and so much more competitive. There’s always a lot of trash talk. That’s for sure. When we’re all home and get to play together, it’s so nice and just play our little matches and have a little trash talking. I always say just having them around has made me the player that I am. Them always making noise in my back swing and just being always so focused to beat them made me very tough on the golf course.
Do you still get nervous in tournaments?
Standing on the first tee at the Solheim Cup is probably the most nervous I’ve been since my first U.S. Open (when she was only 12). Playing well in that event, though, helped me out so much in my game. Personally, I think it gave me the satisfaction that I could pull shots off under the highest level of pressure possible. When the galleries are five rows deep and they’re all screaming, there’s nothing in golf that has that adrenaline rush.
Any time I can represent my country, that’s my number one goal. That’s was my number one goal coming into the year, to be on that team. There is nothing like representing your country.
Speaking of adrenaline, your sponsor Red Bull is known for associating with extreme sports athletes. Do they try to push the envelope with you a Rickie Fowler a little?
They wanted me to do a cliff diving thing with their cliff diving team. I thought about it. It was close to a yes, but then I thought maybe I shouldn’t (risk injury). I sky-dove from 10,000 ft to the first tee at the Kingsmill Pro-Am in support of the (Navy) SEAL Legacy Foundation. It was unforgettable. Awesome. Just to be able to represent them and hopefully bring awareness to them and this foundation to help raise money for the families of fallen SEALS and also operators in service right now.
I’ve done quite few tamer Red Bull days and it’s a lot of fun reaching out to my fans, letting them ask any question that they want and then teaching them a few shots. I like interacting with my fans. I have Twitter, two Facebooks, Instagram and SnapChat. That’s what I love about my sponsors. They allow me to reach out to my fans.
How has the LPGA Tour changed since you turned pro seven years ago?
Women’s golf is growing. Even since I turned professional, we’ve gained more tournaments. We’ve gained more sponsorships and more TV coverage. We work hard and we’re showing our talent and doing something we love. And we want more and more people to support us. The huge galleries we see at events like the Soheim Cup mean the world to us.
This Tour is so global. Everybody is coming from everywhere now and they have such amazing talent. That’s why you’re seeing all the different winners almost every week.
Who are your closest friends on tour?
I would say I hang out with Austin Ernst and Jaye Green the most. Now, there are a few girls I played junior golf with on Tour which is really nice because I know them pretty well.
You’ve achieved some lofty career goals at an early age. Does the achievement feel like you thought it was when these things were just dreams?
Yeah, I would say so. It’s a lot of traveling, a lot of hard work and I’ve gone through struggles where I’ve just had to work through it. It gets hard sometimes, but it’s everything I imagined. I love traveling. I love playing and I love working on my game and working through it. I’ve said before I’m addicted to trying to get better.
You’re only 22, but you’ve traveled around the world. Where’s your favorite travel destination?
My favorite place has been Dubai. I love it there. I took my mom there and that’s her favorite place to go now. I want to go back to Italy. I want there for about one day to shoot a commercial for Puma, but I’d love to go back and just hang out and sight-see. To play golf there would be amazing, too.
Are your comfortable in this growing spotlight?
Yeah, I’m pretty comfortable with it. I love interacting with my fans whether it’s through social media or just being with them in pro-ams or sponsor events. I enjoy it. It’s a way to reach out to my fans and I’m okay with the attention. It comes with the success.
What can’t you live without?
I wouldn’t be able to live without my family, for sure. I use my iPod for music or my iPhone alot. People are surprised that I have a good amount of rappers on it. I’ve got Lil Wayne and Drake but I also have Rihanna on there and some Linkin Park and Blink 182 for work out jams to get me pumped.
Say you’re in the final pairing in the final round of a big tournament and the Golf Gods could guarantee you a birdie on either the first hole or the 18th, but not both. Which would you choose?
I would say the first hole. I like it when I come out firing. That’s what happened in the final round at (The ANA Inspiration in 2014). To set the tone and settle the nerves to start the round does a lot.
If the LPGA could add a new event at any venue in the world, where would you like it to be?
Augusta National, obviously. That’d just be sick if there was ever ladies event there.
By Carl Mickelson
Photos by Red Bull