‘There are definitely concerns’: Lexi Thompson Solheim Cup-bound amid career-worst slump
There were three ways by which players could secure a spot on the 2023 U.S Solheim Cup team, which will square off against their European counterparts at Finca Cortesín, in Andalucía, Spain, next month: (1) finishing in the top seven on the points list at the end of the qualifying period (which concluded Aug. 27); (2) landing one of Stacy Lewis’ three captain’s picks; or (3) being one of the highest-ranked players on the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings who did not otherwise qualify by way of the points system.
This year, that third qualifying route delivered to the U.S. team two players on wildly different trajectories: Rose Zhang and Lexi Thompson. In June, Zhang — a much-hyped LPGA rookie — became the first player to win her first-career LPGA start, at the Mizuho Americas Open, since Beverley Hanson in 1951. Since then, Zhang has three top-10s in six starts — all coming at majors — and ranks 12th in Strokes Gained on tour.
If Zhang, who has quickly climbed to 30th in the world, had not qualified by way of her world ranking, surely Lewis would have expended one of her captain’s picks on the ascendant 20-year-old.
Thompson year’s has been decidedly less rosy. In nine stroke-play starts in 2023, she has missed seven cuts and failed to notch a top-30 finish. She has broken 70 just twice and ranks 196th in Strokes Gained. Her SG: Tee to Green and SG: Around the Green ratings are even worse, at 202nd and 215th, respectively. She is 140th on the money list (with less than $56,000 in earnings) and 157th in the Race to the CME Globe, the LPGA’s season-long points competition, which means she is in jeopardy of losing her full playing privileges for 2024. Last week, at the CPKC Women’s Open, in Canada, Thompson shot 76-80 to miss the cut by eight.
If Thompson, who has slid to 26th in the world, had not qualified by way of her world ranking, Lewis would have had to think long and hard about whether the 28-year-old, who is 7-8-3 in five prior Solheim Cup appearances, would be worthy of a wildcard pick.
“There’s definitely some concerns about her game, 100 percent,” Lewis said on a conference call with reporters earlier this week after her team had been finalized. “Talking to her, though, she’s been handling all this remarkably well. I’ve said it before, but you see her off the golf course, and you would never know she’s struggling like she is right now.”
It’s been a remarkably swift descent. In 2022, Thompson missed only four cuts in 18 starts and had eight top-10 finishes. She didn’t win but frequently threatened to, four times finishing second.
“It’s been a good year,” Thompson said in her last start of the ’22 season where she played in the final pairing on Sunday with Nelly Korda. “I’ve just been trying to improve on my game on and off the golf course; the mental side as well. I feel like I’ve played consistent golf, and I’m slowly picking at it and improving on the things that I’ve needed to improve on, and slowly getting more and more consistent. So that’s really all I want. I know the wins will come.”
But they haven’t. At least not this year.
Conversely, Thompson followed a promising 2022 with what has been by far the worst season of her career. At the 2023 Chevron Championship, in Houston, the first women’s major of the year, she played with a taped-up right wrist — the result, she said, of over-practicing. That injury was part of the reason she has made so few starts this year, but so too, she has said, was simply wanting to take more time for herself. (Given her youth, it’s easy to forget that Thompson has been playing professionally for 13 years. Or that she played in her first U.S. Open 16 years ago — when she was 12.)
Four months later, at another major — the KPMG Women’s PGA, at Baltusrol, in New Jersey — Thompson said she’d been “grinding” this season, adding, “It’s been tough. Just trying to get something that can click with my swing and just everything out there.”
When pushed for more detail, Thompson said she had been trying to simplify her swing and not get bogged down with technical thoughts. She said her driver swing is at its best when it’s producing a baby draw. “That’s where I get most of my distance, most of my center contact,” she said. “I’m working on that.”
Call it a work in progress. While Thompson is still among the longer hitters — her 265-yard average ranks 29th on tour — she also has been wild, hitting just 59.64% of her fairways, which ranks 156th. That deficiency has led to too-many missed greens; her greens in regulation percentage of 63.61 ranks 109th.
Reasonable minds might wonder whether Thompson could hurt the U.S. team more than she’ll help it. Lewis has the option to play Thompson sparingly during the team matches, but come the high-pressure Sunday singles, every player takes center stage. Thompson’s career singles record is 1-1-3.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson has been facing a sort-of similar dilemma with one of his stalwarts, Justin Thomas. We say sort of because while Thomas’ game, like Thompson’s, has been out of form, his struggles have been nothing close to Thompson’s. Thomas also has a much stronger Ryder Cup record (6-2-1) than Thompson’s Solheim Cup results, and he has evolved into the rabble-rousing heart and soul of the U.S. team in a way that Thompson has not done on the women’s side. There’s also one other key difference between the two players: Johnson actively put Thomas on his team, while Thompson was among the nine players assigned to Lewis.
For her part, though, Lewis is optimistic that Thompson will find ways to contribute in Spain. “She is not going to quit, and she is not going to give up on the golf course,” Lewis said, “and sometimes I think that’s the most important thing in Solheim Cups and team events.”
Lewis added: “We are going to rely on her behind the scenes, too, to help in the team room and be in a different position than she’s been in the past, because she probably is the most experienced of anybody on the team. We are just going to rely on her differently and hopefully over the next month with her work that she’s putting in that she gets some things figured out.”
Thompson is not in the field this week at the Portland Classic, but is scheduled to play next week at the Kroger Queen City Championship, in Ohio, the last LPGA event before the Solheim Cup.