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Tuesday, November 15, 2011
There's nothing typical about Lexi Thompson

By Mick Elliott

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Lexi Thompson -- just your typical 16-year-old girl next door with an LPGA victory, a lucrative endorsement contract and, some people say, the future of American women's golf resting on her shoulders -- is pleading her case.

With genuine sincerity, Thompson proclaims affection for all things that make a 16-year-old a 16-year-old. Insatiable appetite for music, texting and Facebook? Check. Sleepovers with friends at which girl talk touches all mandatory subjects -- boys, sports, movies, clothes, shopping and boys -- and lingers long into the night? Check.

There's even her occasional groundings. "Yeah, I've had my phone taken away," Thompson said with a giggle before refusing to divulge the infraction. "Facebook, too."

And don't forget chores.

"I do laundry for my mom when she's at work," Thompson said. "I unload the dishwasher. Anything. If my mom calls me up and tells me to do something, I'll do it."

She produces an admirable argument. If all evidence were not to the contrary, the effort might be enough to suggest the youngest of Scott and Judy Thompson's three children could be just another typical mall-exploring teen in the South Florida community of Coral Springs.

"I'm a normal teenager when I'm home," she insisted.

Except, she's not.

When the LPGA's season-ending Titleholders begins play Thursday at Grand Cypress Golf Club, the real Thompson will show that almost nothing beyond the aforementioned school-girl interests is the slightest bit average.

"Well, what I think is most different about her is she is so focused," mother Judy said. "And determined. She has a mission in life -- although we never seem to know what it is until the next level she presents us with."

It starts with Lexi Thompson just being here to compete in the limited-field tournament that ends the LPGA season with 23 of the world's top 30 in attendance.

By an LPGA bylaw that requires a minimum age of 18, she would not be eligible for tour membership. Thompson's petition for an age waiver was rejected early last year shortly after she announced intentions to turn professional, but that changed two months ago. That's when, playing on a sponsor's exemption, she won the Navistar LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala., becoming the youngest tournament winner in LPGA history.

She didn't just win. With a final-round 70, Thompson finished the 72-hole event 17 under and five shots in front of runner-up Tiffany Joh. She shattered the LPGA age record for winning a multiple-round tournament, which previously was held by Paula Creamer, who won in 2005 at 18. Marlene Hagge was 18 years and 14 days old when she won the single-round Sarasota Open in 1952.

A short time later, Thompson again asked for an age waiver and was quickly invited by LPGA commissioner Mike Whan to become a full-time member.

"Lexi Thompson is a unique talent who has continued to grow, develop and mature both on and off the golf course since turning professional in 2010," Whan said. "Her ability to handle the success and disappointment inherent to this game testifies to a level of maturity that I believe makes her capable of handling the emotional rigors of professional golf."

Almost immediately, golf observers ordained the youngster as the future of American women's golf, the missing red, white and blue star Michelle Wie was supposed to be, a player who will raise the LPGA's profile on its home turf.

"I'm just doing what I love," Thompson said. "Winning that tournament was a big bonus, but I've worked really hard my whole life."

Lexi has no greater supporter than Scott, her father and caddie. He's a hard nut who is both protective and demanding. A former engineer who graduated from the University of Michigan, he gave up the profession a few years ago to concentrate solely on helping Lexi hone her skills.

The family passion for golf might have come from Judy, once a talented junior golfer and college player, but the ultra-competitiveness comes from Scott.

If you play, it's to win. And he does not like the whole "future of American women's golf" thing that is being hung on his daughter.

"I wish they wouldn't do that," he said, standing just off the 18th green at Grand Cypress on Monday after a practice round. "I think it's just a little unfair. People should not say that, because it's not just up to her. There are some great American players out there, you know. But hopefully, she will be one of them."

Although Lexi insists she does not remember her first competitive round, rest easy, her mother does. Taking up golf, in great part because older brothers Nicholas and Curtis played competitively, she was 6 when she entered a Doral Resort junior event.

She was following in some pretty big footsteps. Nick, 28, is now a tour pro with more than $3.8 million in career earnings. Curtis, 18, is a freshman at LSU on a full-ride golf scholarship.

"I remember it distinctly," Judy recalled. "My husband put her in Doral, and someone beat her by 10 shots. She was terrible. My husband saw the ability of the other players and said, 'I have one year to get her better.' He devoted his next year to that.

"She came back and won the next time by, I don't know, a lot. It just took off from there. She was so determined. They went out to practice every day. She took it on."

Mom laughed, recalling the milestone moment. The memory fueled another flashback. Then another.

There was the time when she was, "probably 10," after an already lengthy practice session at the driving range, Lexi refused to leave.

"'I'm just not hitting it good; I'm going to stay out here for a while,'" Judy remembered the dialogue. "I said, 'Lexi, dinner is at 7 and it will be on the table. So you can just ride your bike home whether you are finished or not.' So she stayed at the golf course until five minutes 'til 7 and then rode her bike home. She'd say, 'I can't go to bed with this in my head.' That's how she'd say it ... at 10 years old. 'I can't go to bed with this in my head.'"

Another one. In 2007, when Lexi was 12, she became the youngest golfer to play in a U.S. Open. On the driving range, fellow South Floridian Cristie Kerr walked by Lexi and offered a friendly, "Have fun." When she left, Lexi turned to Scott and said, "Yeah, right. I'm here to play good."

And then there was the American Junior Golf Association event at which Lexi never made it to the first tee.

"It was in Texas," Scott said. "She'd played a practice round and had a little attitude. Then when we played the junior-am with the adults, she had quite a bit more attitude because she wasn't hitting it very good. I kind of snuck her over to the car and said, 'You're done. You are not getting to play.' It helped tremendously."

Standing nearby, Judy nodded her head.

"We had to open her eyes and say, 'Lexi, you have to relax and chill,'" Judy said. "You are not going to get something because of your attitude. But she has grown out of that, a lot."

Lexi pleads guilty. Precociousness does, after all, bring its own challenges.

"I've always been a fiery, competitive person," she said. "I've learned now you need to have fun when you play and be more relaxed. I think back then ... I was really too serious. But I am still focused on playing really well."

As it turns out, Thompson's growth is very much a part of her extraordinary development. She might be 16 in years, but she looks, plays and acts like a career woman.

She stands just a shade under 6 feet tall with a toned, muscular frame. Sharp, angular facial features give her a look that defies strangers to correctly guess her age -- maybe somewhere around 18 to 20, or she could be 28. You can't be sure.

"You'd figure she was at least my age," said Jennifer Johnson, a friend of Thompson's from junior golf, who now is a 20-year-old LPGA rookie. "In many ways, she's more mature that some out here. She handles herself pretty well."

Add the fact that Thompson absolutely bombs the golf ball, ripping a powerful swing undoubtedly developed by never giving an inch to two older brothers, and in age-group comparisons, she stands out like a Mack Truck in a demolition derby.

"I've heard that a lot," Thompson said about the beyond-her-years appearance. "I don't look like a 16-year-old. And I don't play like one. I think that's a compliment. I mean, I've worked really hard on my physical strength and everything about my game to get where I'm at."

That would now be at the front of the line for Lexi's Wild Ride.

She will go into the 2012 LPGA season as a card-carrying, fully exempt member at an age at which most girls are like, well, you know, like, wondering, who will be on the cover of next week's Popstar Magazine.

Thompson already has earned her chops. Since turning professional at 15, she has played in 14 LPGA events, either through qualifying or on sponsors' exemptions. Including the win in September, she has a second and three top-10s, having made eight cuts. In those 14 events, she has earned more than $550,000.

Earlier this year, she enjoyed the spoils.

"A lot of the money goes into a bank account," she said. "But some I get to spend. I earned the money, so I got myself a car."

The black Chevrolet Camaro SS has blacked-out windows, black rims and a billet grill. Cool. Very cool.

"After all the good things that happened, I treated myself," she said.

When the decision was made to turn pro, Scott and Judy took something of a public relations beating. More than a few critics painted the pair as stage parents, pushing an offspring into a spotlight that was too bright at the time. Remember, the LPGA wasn't an immediate option for a 15-year-old pro.

Although easy to make, the assumptions were all dead wrong. As it turned out, Scott and Judy were among the last holdouts.

"I thought I was ready," Lexi said. "I was always going up to my parents saying I wanted to turn pro. I really wanted to take my game to the next level."

At 14, Thompson became only the second player in women's golf history to be the nation's No. 1-ranked junior and the No. 1-ranked amateur at the same time. Only Kerr had held the same top rankings previously -- and she did it at 18. Kerr now is the No. 3-ranked female golfer in the world.

"If we had talked her out of it, then her enthusiasm would leave," Judy said. "We never tried to talk her out of it; we just tried to postpone it for as many years as possible. Finally, it came to the time when she was just wearing on us ... you do know how a child can wear on you?

"Then, one day we just said, OK, we're going to call the whole family together. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, godmothers and godfathers. We wanted everybody's input, not just our own, and not just hers. She kept saying, 'I want to follow my dream.'"

The family meeting was called in the spring of last year shortly after Lexi's 15th birthday. After much discussion, a deal was made. Lexi would have the family blessing with one stipulation: She would agree to earn her high school degree.

Taking classes online and handling homework assignments around her golf schedule, Lexi is on schedule to earn her degree early next year.

"Our thoughts were that a lot of people do not get to follow their dreams," Judy said. "Some don't even know what their dreams are. She knows exactly what her dreams are."

Just a guess, but spring break probably isn't among them.