Thompson, 12, to embark on record-setting appearance
For a 12-year-old girl heading into the seventh grade, it was all a bit overwhelming. Not the scores she was shooting against golfers twice her age -- and beyond -- in an attempt to make it to this week's U.S. Women's Open. In retrospect, that was the easy part.
No, it was all the attention that came with the accomplishment. The reporters and the camera crews and the hysteria. Answering the same questions over and over. The limelight.
And when they descended upon her home course last week in Coral Springs, Fla., well ... making a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of a tournament seemed easier.
"Yeah, there were a lot of them," Alexis Thompson said of a hastily arranged media opportunity in advance of this week's tournament at Pine Needles Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. "But it was OK, better than I thought. I think I did pretty good, but I sure was nervous."
Thompson figures to have that same queasy feeling when she steps to the first tee on Thursday at Pine Needles, where she will be the youngest qualifier ever to play in the U.S. Women's Open. In a bit of a coincidence, Thompson -- who prefers to go by Lexi -- replaced another South Florida golfer, Morgan Pressel, in the record book.
Pressel was a few months older than Thompson when she shot a pair of 77s at Pine Needles in 2001 and missed the cut. Although there were questions about her participation -- was she too young to be competing against paid professionals? -- Pressel used the experience as a launching point to a successful junior career. Now 19, Pressel is in her second year on the LPGA Tour and won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April.
Is Thompson headed for the same kind of success? It is a question her father, Scott, said is too early to answer. Yet he has enough experience as a golf parent to know greatness when he sees it. His son Nick, 24, starred at Georgia Tech and likely is headed back to the PGA Tour in 2008 because he is second on the Nationwide Tour money list. Another son, Curtis, 14, is an aspiring player who is having success on the American Junior Golf Association circuit despite playing in an older age bracket. He recently qualified for the U.S. Junior. In fact, before Scott headed to Pine Needles, he made a diversion to Tampa, where Curtis was competing in an AJGA event this past weekend.
"It's a little hectic with three," Scott said. "Luckily, Nick is on his own and self-sufficient. But it's been pretty crazy. I guess the one I mainly worry about is Nick because he's doing it for a living. You pull for your children so hard, and when they struggle, you really feel for them."
So perhaps it is understandable that Scott tried to shield his daughter from the pending onslaught after she shot 72-71 in a 36-hole qualifier June 11 at Heathrow Country Club near Orlando. The interview requests started coming, and a week later at an AJGA event, Scott told reporters they could not question his daughter about the Open.
That caused some bad feelings that were soon worked out when Scott asked Bobby Kreusler, his son's agent, to help out. After first consulting with the U.S. Golf Association to make sure there was no threat to Lexi's amateur status by having someone offer advice, Kreusler set up last week's media opportunities.
"I told Scott to enjoy this," Kreusler said. "This is going to be a pretty special week. There are parents who can't dream of this. And these parents have done a great job with their kids."
By all indications, Lexi is no fluke. She became the youngest champion of the prestigious Doral Publix Junior Championship this past December. This spring, she became the second-youngest winner of an AJGA event in just her second start.
Lexi and Curtis, who are home-schooled and take part in a detailed training program each morning before heading to the TPC Eagle Trace for practice and play, are on a clear path set out by their father.
"I pretty much know which tournaments I need to attack and pursue so my kids can keep progressing," Scott said. "I know which ones to play and not to play. The secret is how to move them up and get them into the right tournaments and get them in better tournaments after that. It's not always such an easy thing to do. They need to perform so they can advance to the next level, and that's not always so easy."
Not to be dismissed is the influence of her brothers.
"Growing up, they were both playing golf and they were an inspiration," she said. "My brothers were so good, and I want to be good, too. I started getting serious around 9 or 10, started playing tournaments, and saw I could be good at this game. It became serious golf at that point. Now, I play against really good competition on really nice golf courses."
No doubt playing with brothers Nick and Curtis helps. Lexi said she manages to coax 4 strokes a side from Nick. Curtis is a bit stingier, giving up just 1 a side.
"They help me out whenever I have a problem with my swing," she said.
That's some pretty serious counseling and competition. Then again, you cannot ask for more serious competition and a nicer course than Lexi will find this week in the Sandhills of North Carolina.
Nick was to be there Monday and Tuesday after tying for eighth at the Knoxville Open on the Nationwide Tour. He wanted to help with yardages and strategy before heading off to his next event, this week in Erie, Pa.
"It is just special for her to be there," Nick Thompson said. "That in and of itself is enough. I just want her to have fun. That's the main thing right now. For a 12-year-old to make it through local and sectional qualifying into the Open is pretty amazing -- even though we knew she was capable."
Lexi is 5-foot-6 and can hit drives 240 yards. She is tall and strong for her age, and it shows in her success against older players. But this week is about having a good time -- even though Lexi admits her competitiveness might get in the way of that.
"I want to play well," she said. "If I make the cut, that would be awesome, but I just want to do good."
Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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