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Young LPGA star Lexi Thompson is just starting to reach her potential

The Baltimore Sun

Lexi Thompson first asked her parents the question when she was 12 and had become the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open.

The same question was asked for the next three years, after Thompson qualified each time for the Open.

Thompson, one of the most dominant junior and amateur players in the country, wanted to know when she could play regularly on the LPGA Tour.

Finally, when she was 15, the family — including grandparents and godparents — gathered at Judy and Scott Thompson's South Florida home for dinner.

And a decision.

"We said, 'OK, if this is your dream, follow it,'" Judy Thompson recalled recently. "The only stipulation was that she had to finish high school and get her degree. It's worked out really well. She said, 'A lot of people go to college to get a job. I already have a job and I love it. Why should I go another route?'"

Less than a decade after introducing herself to the golfing world during the 2007 U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C., the now 19-year-old Thompson has already begun building an impressive legacy.

Coming into the inaugural International Crown at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Thompson is ranked fifth in the world — second among U.S. players, behind only top-ranked Stacy Lewis, and one spot ahead of former teenage phenom and burgeoning rival Michelle Wie.

If her five-shot win at the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic showed she belonged among the best female players in the world, her first major victory in this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship put her on another level.

"The first win is always the hardest to get under your belt," Thompson said. "Once I got the win at the Navistar LPGA Classic, it definitely gave me a lot more confidence.

"Going to LPGA Q School and winning that and becoming a full member, it gave me a lot more confidence knowing that I had a lot more tournaments to play. It took a lot more pressure off me."

Four months after becoming the youngest player to win an event in tour history, Thompson did the same on the European women's tour, when she won the Dubai Ladies Masters by four strokes.

Thompson said her confidence has ratcheted up a couple of more notches since her win at the Kraft Nabisco, where she beat Wie by three shots.

Home schooling

If Thompson had one advantage over Wie, an only child, it came from competing with her two older brothers. Her eldest brother, 31-year-old Nicholas, plays on the PGA Tour. Curtis Thompson 21, just turned pro after finishing his junior year on the golf team at LSU.

"They're the reason I got started in the beginning, playing against them and trying to outdrive them or beat them," Lexi Thompson said. "They've always been there to teach me things, too. It's very competitive. Every time we're all together we play our matches and it's intense.

"I think that's what has made us the players that we are. Growing up, I played from the [back tees] sometimes, trying to [hit] as long as them, trying to beat them straight up. It's made me a lot more competitive and a better player and a better person."

Nicholas Thompson thinks his kid sister isn't taking enough credit for what she's accomplished.

"We helped her, but she's a very, very hard-working individual," he said.

When Nicholas was playing in college, he would tell his Georgia Tech teammates "watch out for this girl, she's going to be killing it, she's going to be one of the great [women] golfers."

His friends chalked it up to him just being a proud big brother, but now they ask how he knew.

"You could tell the first time she put a golf club in her hands," he said.

Judy Thompson, who played high school and junior college golf in South Florida, also credits her husband, Scott, for their children's development.

"He knows their game inside out," she said of Scott, an engineer who only played the game recreationally. "He knows their swing. He sleeps with their swing."

While both her brothers went to college, Lexi Thompson believes the route she took worked best for her game.

"I definitely think it's matured better the way I went," she said. "I always say that once I went to my first Women's Open, that's where I realized I wanted to play on the LPGA tour. I knew I had to work on my game, improve on certain things, get longer, but that whole week I learned so much on what I had to practice."

Unlike Wie — who made the cut in the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at age 13, finished fourth in the 2004 Kraft Nabisco and second to Annika Sorenstam in the 2005 LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock — Thompson acted more her age in her Open debut. She rounds of 86 and 82.

But it was still a worthwhile experience.

"I went into it expecting to be very excited and nervous, obviously," she said. "It was just an amazing experience to see the players that I had watched on the tour like Lorena [Ochoa] or Annika [Sorenstam]. To soak it all [in], the whole expereince of the golf course, the players, all the media, I learned so much about myself and what I needed to do to play against the best in the world."

'Just scratching the surface'

Thompson is still learning. Since turning pro in 2010 and having some early success — she finished tied for second in the prestigious Evian Masters in one of her first few tournaments — Thompson has alternated between contending for titles and stringing together missed cuts.

Though she has been much more consistent this year, with seven top-10 finishes and only two missed cut in her first 14 events, ESPN golf analyst Judy Rankin believes that the 6-footer "is still becoming a refined player."

I don't think she's where she's going to be in a few years," Rankin contiuned.

Asked what Thompson is lacking, Rankin said, "She would be the first to tell you her short game can improve. I don't think her shotmaking, her golf swing, is as consistent as it needs to be. And that's pretty much proven by some of the ups and downs. When it's really good it's miles away from when it is not."

Said Lewis: "She's just scratching the surface of where she is going to be."

As Wie was — and still is — an inspiration for the next group of up-and-coming players, so is Thompson, given the records she held.

Some of Thompson's records have already fallen. In 2013, amateur Lydia Ko of New Zealand became the youngest player to win an LPGA event, a couple of months earlier than Thompson did it. Last month, 11-year-old Lucy Li became the youngest player ever in a U.S. Open, shooting a pair of 78s at Pinehurst No. 2.

"I knew it [the U.S. Open record] was going to be broken. That's what records are made for," Thompson said. "I definitely didn't believe it when I saw it on Twitter. It's great for her. She's obviously a very talented player with all the accomplishments she's made."

Rankin, who began her own Hall of Fame career at age 17, said Wie's much-publicized stumble after being hyped so much as a 13-year-old "was watched by other families and families with girls who looked like they were going to be as good or equally as good."

One of the rules the Thompsons set for their daughter was that she wouldn't play against her brother or any other PGA Tour or Web.com professional, as Wie had done with some early success and a string of failures that followed.

Unlike Wie, who needed to quit playing competitively and go to college before recognizing her potential, Thompson seems well beyond her years.

While she still travels with one of her parents because she is too young to rent a car or be given a courtesy car like the other top players, Judy Thompson her daughter is "more like 25. I think it's because she has siblings."

The thrill of winning tournaments (she has four victories as a pro) has not become old for Thompson, but the non-stop travel and competition has certainly made her recognize that there's a difference between playing golf and playing golf for a living.

"I was starting to think that after my first or second year out there, just getting used to the whole scene," she said. "It's been great so far."

And becoming greater, just like Thompson herself.

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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