|ESPN.com: More Sports||[Print without images]|
Lexi Thompson was 15 when she turned professional, making the announcement at a news conference for which she arrived riding shotgun in a NASCAR racing machine provided by a new sponsor.
Heads turned and more than a few eyebrows were raised on the putting green that day in 2010. The Red Bull No. 83 car rumbled onto the Galloway, N.J., golf resort grounds, and Thompson climbed out, an in-your-face arrival to announce she was about to become the youngest professional in the history of women's golf. She would be playing the LPGA's ShopRite Classic on a sponsor's exemption.
|With one LPGA victory to her credit, Lexi Thompson already has a bevy of endorsements.|
To complete the coming-out party on a tour where sponsorships are the closest thing to gold, Thompson was a corporate vision: Red Bull visor, pink Puma shirt, white Puma shoes with yellow-and-green Puma stripes and pink shoelaces. A mob of photographers were there to capture her every move.
"She's ready," Scott Thompson, her father and caddie, said that day. "Why not benefit from it?"
He was right.
This past fall, Thompson, still playing on sponsor's exemptions because LPGA bylaws require a minimum age of 18 for membership, won the Navistar LPGA Classic at age 16 to become the youngest tournament champion in LPGA history.
The next day a New York media blitz began for the tall, attractive teenager that included appearances on "The Early Show," "Today" and CNN as well as spreads in a host of national publications.
"I loved it," Thompson said, recalling the whirlwind week. "I mean, it was definitely a lot of attention, but you know, it was great. I got to meet a lot of pretty famous people, like Taylor Lautner, Jonah Hill. It was an amazing experience for me."
Seven weeks earlier, Yani Tseng, the world's No. 1-ranked player and only 22, had won the Women's British Open, her second major of the year and fifth of her career. No other golfer, man or woman, had ever accomplished so much so soon. Yet the American public reacted with a giant yawn.
Now, with the 2012 season set to begin, Thompson, granted an age waiver and full membership to the tour, enters her rookie season as the most interesting, most watched, most discussed player in women's golf. More so even than Tseng.
"Not everybody who is extremely successful travels the same road or ends up the same kind of star," respected golf commentator Judy Rankin said. "Let me put it in terms people will get: There are just some extraordinarily good players who are never going to get the public attention that another player of exactly the same talent will get."
Tseng, who turned 23 last month, is huge in her native Taiwan, a veritable rock star who, upon flying home last year, required the same security forces that accompanied Lady Gaga when the pop star arrived there for a concert performance.
"It is incredible," Tseng said. "I feel really appreciated and supported. It does not matter where in the world I am. They wake up at midnight to watch me on television and cheer for me.
"That is huge for me and gives me lots of motivation to become better and not just to play for myself. I play for my country, and I play for my fans."
But the LPGA, although contesting a large chunk of its schedule abroad as a world tour, is based in America, where sports fans have proved to be more than a little bit nationalistic when it comes to adopting heroes.
Tseng openly talks about her love for the United States and desire to follow in the footsteps of her childhood idol, Sweden's Annika Sorenstam, who broadened her appeal from the golf world to the mainstream and gained iconic status in the U.S. before retiring in 2008.
In an attempt to emulate her hero, Tseng has thrown herself into mastering English while going the extra mile to be accessible to fans and media, interacting with galleries and always smiling. She has become a full-time U.S. resident, even buying and moving into the Orlando, Fla., home in which Sorenstam previously lived.
"I love America," Tseng said last week before leaving for Australia. "I have come here since I was 12, every summer. Now I've been living here for four years, and I really enjoy it. The people are so nice. They are kind, and that helps very much as I try to speak English.
"I know I am not American. I'm Asian. But I feel I want to help Asian and American golf. It's more than just helping golf. The kids. Help maybe kids who do not have enough money to go to school. I love kids. I just feel like if I play golf here, I want to give back to America. That's what I feel, yeah."
|Yani Tseng at a Magic game in Orlando, where she lives in Annika Sorenstam's former home. Tseng loves America and is giving it her all to earn U.S. fans' affections.|
Tseng's adviser and agent, Ernie Huang, confirms the golfer's desires are long-term.
"We do not care how long it takes,'' he said.
All of which works to draw an interesting parallel between the LPGA's two biggest newsmakers.
Tseng, while off to the greatest start ever -- the world No. 1 ranking for a full year and five majors by age 22 -- wants what Thompson already has achieved: recognition, admiration and glamour appeal.
Thompson, on the other hand, while already leading the LPGA in Q rating and endorsement potential, would figuratively kill to win at a similar pace, magnitude and dominance as Tseng.
Both will face their own personal challenges to eventually -- if ever -- meet in the land of total satisfaction.
"Yeah, I think I'd say that," Tseng agreed. "But I just want to keep winning, and if you make history, people will automatically watch you."
Although Tseng's is a logical assessment, it's not necessarily true, said Connie Wilson, a former LPGA vice president of communications who now operates her own public relations/communications agency in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"To a degree she's right, but that would be only in the golf world," Wilson said. "People started paying attention to Yani last year in golf because of what she was doing. I mean, she was history-making, record-setting. When your peers -- if you can call them that -- start recognizing what you are doing from a performance perspective, that's great. But it's still within that sports circle. It hasn't raised above the fray.
"I look from Yani's perspective, and she needs mainstream attention. Yani is a wonderful, wonderful young woman. An incredible athlete, tremendous personality. As a fan, I know she's great, but why would I want to root for her in addition to performance? Activating beyond the golf circle introduces you to new audiences."
Sorenstam made the leap from golfer to mainstream icon initially by becoming the first woman in 58 years to play in a PGA Tour event, performing well in the 2003 Colonial, then later sharing her off-the-course passions for cooking, physical fitness and charity.
"You have to broaden yourself beyond what you do inside the ropes and reach different audiences," Wilson said. "You know, Annika performed well between the ropes but wasn't all that well-known, then, all of a sudden hit the icon level."
A big difference for Sorenstam, however, was that because she was blond and spoke English, a lot of casual fans came to believe she was American.
"If you are asking, can an Asian player become the darling of American golf, I'm going to say, probably not," Rankin said. "That's not to say she has not captured the imagination of a lot of people, simply by a beginning hint of dominance.
"She is such a physically strong player. She looks like she's the one player out there who is giving every indication she could be a dominant player like Annika was. The American fan who is paying attention has kind of embraced how this girl has tried so hard to do all the right things and make herself available and accessible and try to draw people in. That's not the most common thing among successful athletes."
Still, Tseng has not captured the fancy of sports fans the way Thompson has.
"She's a phenom as a teenager," Wilson said. "She wins an LPGA event as a 16-year-old, and then there's the controversy/story of what's going to happen regarding LPGA membership. So, right from the start, that kicked her attention into an even higher gear."
Rankin said: "Let's face it, no one can go back and decide to become a 16-year-old darling. She owns that right now. Some of her attention is part of what Lexi Thompson is doing so well, and some of her great celebrity is her age."
Having earned the fame well before a fortune of tournament victories, however, often brings its own set of problems. Can Thompson, who turns 17 Friday, continue to develop her game and grow as a competitor after already being ordained the face of women's golf?
"I'm definitely taking it slow," she said during a December visit to the United Arab Emirates, where she won the Dubai Ladies Masters. "You just have to take it tournament by tournament. I don't like to get ahead of myself. I always want to win, but you have to work really hard for that -- amazing players out here, and the best in the world -- so it's going to take a lot."
Two golfers. Two nationalities. Two routes.