Ten years ago, 16-year-old sensation Alexis Thompson earned her first professional win. But it didn’t happen where you might expect. No, the budding LPGA star’s maiden victory came on the second playoff hole of the TPC February Shootout, a one-day event on the Minor League Golf Tour, a predominantly male mini-tour in South Florida.
It’s hardly a revelation to say that a decade has made a big difference in Thompson’s life; everyone transforms from 16 to 26. But the weight of expectations has been building ever since. Actually, that’s not quite right — the weight of expectations has been building since at least 2007, when Thompson first qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12.
It’s hard to say what doomed Thompson’s chances on Sunday, 14 Women’s Opens starts later. Was it the burden of those expectations? The gnarly test golf at Olympic Club? The simple fact that it’s hard to hold a lead and close out a major championship? Just some version of, shrug, that’s golf?
Near the end of her front nine, Thompson held a five-shot lead. Three hours later, she walked off the 18th green after leaving a must-make par putt short. It was a painful moment; the closing bogey left her a shot outside a playoff. Thompson smiled. She hugged her playing partners. And then she went to sign for a back-nine five-over 41, a heartbreaking conclusion to her tournament.
For most of the final round, it felt like this would be Thompson’s day. She entered Sunday hungry to claim major her second major win, and in prime position: She’d played a near-flawless round en route to 66 on Saturday. She attributed the success to a fresh, positive mindset.
“I was just taking it way too seriously and thinking that Lexi depended on my score,” she said after Saturday’s round. “I’ve been calling [mental coach] John Denney a few times a week and just really focusing on the good in my life and just the blessings.”
Thompson’s day got off to a blistering start; she pounded driver down the par-5 first fairway and hit a long iron inside 10 feet, setting up a simple two-putt birdie. She made bogey at No. 2 but added another birdie at the par-4 5th to get to eight under for the tournament. Around her, the competition faltered. No chase pack emerged. Her lead swelled to five. Olympic’s Lake Course is notoriously brutish, and if Thompson could hold steady at eight under, that score would easily be good enough.
But Thompson wasn’t immune to the U.S. Open demands, either. After a run of pars, No. 11 began her undoing. She hooked her tee shot, hacked out from the rough, chunked a chip and missed a short putt for a double-bogey 6. Suddenly her four-stroke lead became two, and the rest of the field was back in.
Thompson missed another fairway at 14, leading to another bogey. Still, she held the lead facing down back-to-back par-5s at 16 and 17. But she just missed a short birdie try at 16 and then missed the fairway at 17, forcing a layup. But she misjudged the wind on her approach, left herself six feet for par and never gave that putt a chance.
Yuka Saso’s fortunes were turning in the opposite direction. Playing alongside Thompson, Saso made double bogey at No. 2 and No. 3 but rallied late with birdies at 16 and 17. Up ahead, Nasa Hataoka made three birdies in her final six holes to post the clubhouse lead at four under. Back on the 18th tee, Thompson and Saso were at four under, too.
But when Thompson’s approach shot found the front bunker, her last chance to win the tournament in regulation suddenly turned into a scramble just to make it into a playoff. She hit a solid shot from the sand to about 10 feet past the hole, leaving herself a slippery downhill putt to stay for a spot in the playoff. Thompson had been shaky all day on the greens and her penultimate stroke of the day was no exception: it had never had a chance, stopping a couple feet short of the hole.
After her round, Thompson declined an on-camera interview with Golf Channel. She took three questions from reporters, understandably emotional.
“Yeah, of course it’s tough,” she said after the round. “I really didn’t feel like I hit any bad golf shots. That’s what this golf course can do to you, and that’s what I’ve said all week.”
Thompson said she’d been steering clear of leaderboards for much of the day, but added that she knew where she stood down the stretch.
“Just got a few bad breaks, but that’s golf,” she said. Thompson was choked up but stayed composed through her answers.
“Yeah, of course it’s hard to smile but, I mean, it was an amazing week,” she said. “I played not so good today with a few of the bogeys coming in on the back nine, but the fans were unbelievable, hearing the chants — it just gives me a reason to play.”
Thompson is already looking ahead, she said. She has a lot more golf to play. More weeks. More years. “I have a tournament next week, so we’ll take it from there,” she concluded.
With that, her agent thanked the media and declined further questions. Several hundred yards away, the LPGA’s next teen sensation, Yuka Saso, was gearing up for a playoff.
Thompson will hope she’s in the next one.