In the midst of one of her roughest years, Lexi Thompson faces her biggest challenge.
Thompson was coming off her first top-10 finish of the year two weeks ago when she said her management company told her the Shriners Children’s Open had offered her a sponsor exemption to play on the PGA Tour.
“It was basically an automatic ‘yes,’” Thompson said Tuesday at the TPC Summerlin after playing a practice round with Michael Kim and Ben Griffin. “I’m just very honored that they want me here to compete this week, and hopefully send out an inspiring message.”
Thompson, 28, will be the seventh woman to play on the PGA Tour, and the first since Brittany Lincicome in the 2018 Barbasol Championship.
The most notable 20 years ago was Annika Sorenstam at Colonial as a sponsor exemption and Suzy Whaley at the Greater Hartford Open as the PGA section champion. It had been more than 50 years since a woman played on the PGA Tour.
And then there was Michelle Wie West, who played eight times on the PGA Tour. She shot a 68 at the 2004 Sony Open at age 14, missing the cut by one shot.
Thompson said success on the 7,255-yard course would be measured by more than her score.
“Good golf is a successful week,” she said. “If I can leave here inspiring others, and especially the kids — the Shriners kids — that’s what it’s all about and what this tournament is. There is more than just playing golf.
“If I can inspire one individual, I would feel like I’m making progress,” he said. “Of course, yes, I want to play good. There is more to life than performing well.”
Her big challenge comes during a year in which she has fallen to No. 25 in the women’s world ranking and was in jeopardy of losing her LPGA Tour card until registering top 10s the last two weeks in Arkansas and Texas.
Thompson has gone 73 starts on the LPGA Tour since her last win at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in 2019. She did win last year in a Saudi-funded Ladies European Tour event. She started to turn around her game at the Solheim Cup, going 3-1 in Spain as Europe retained the cup.
“This course is probably a little longer than what she’s used to, but I thought she’s hitting it really well and she’s going to have a good chance … heading into this week,” Kim said.
Peter Malnati, who serves on the PGA Tour policy board, referred to it as a gimmick last week when the exemption was announced, and then he quickly regretted his choice of words.
Las Vegas is part of the FedEx Cup Fall, where players are trying to make sure they keep their PGA Tour cards for next year or even qualify for the first two $20 million events in 2024.
“I know that Lexi at times has been one of the top players on the LPGA Tour and she’s obviously very athletic. Distance won’t be a problem — she’ll hit it far enough,” Malnati said. “My gut reaction when I saw that was like the tournament … just trying to drum up interest. I don’t think we’re going to need to resort to gimmicks to drum up interest.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he added. “I don’t know that having Lexi play is a gimmick, but I don’t think the tournaments are going to have to go to those kind of lengths to drum up interest and get storylines that they can sell because I think these events are actually going to have a lot of meaning.”
Thompson is used to the spotlight. She qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at age 12, making her the youngest qualifier at the time. She won her first LPGA event at age 16 to become its youngest winner, a record that lasted a year until 15-year-old Lydia Ko came along.
She also has had her share of blunders, most notably losing a five-shot lead on the back nine at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2021 at Olympic Club, and getting docked a four-shot penalty for replacing her ball closer to the hole at the ANA Inspiration in 2017.
The spotlight and any negativity about playing a PGA Tour event don’t seem to be a problem.
“I’m out here playing of course with the men, but I want to leave a message just to the kids that I’m following my dreams and to go after what you want with a positive mindset and don’t let anybody’s comments or reaction get in the way of that,” Thompson said.
The first step is to try to stay all four days. Thompson tees off Thursday afternoon with PGA Tour rookies Kevin Roy and Trevor Werbylo, both outside the top 175 in the FedEx Cup and trying to crack the top 125 to keep their cards.
Thompson currently ranks 12th in driving distance on the LPGA Tour at 270 yards. She sometimes hits less club off the tee, and that’s one aspect that appeals to her about this week.
“Here it’s driver on every hole, and I definitely like that,” Thompson said. “Fire away and swing, get the most distance I can on a few of those holes.”
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