Lexi Thompson embraces role of inspiring girls — and boys too
by Gary Baines
It may be just a coincidence, but since the year Lexi Thompson was born — 1995 — the percentage of American junior golfers who are females has doubled.
Obviously, it’s not all due to Thompson — to say the least — but it’s not an overstatement to say that the young Lexi has more than done her part to grow the game, particularly among girls.
For the record, the growth statistic, according to the National Golf Foundation, is this: In 1995, 17 percent of all junior golfers in the U.S. were female. Now, that percentage is 32.7.
Thompson knows the figures, and they bring a smile to her face. On Saturday, the No. 2-ranked female golfer in the world conducted a First Tee kids exhibition — presented by CoBank — at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in northeast Denver. Though the event, which drew more than 200 people, wasn’t limited to girls, they were the vast majority of attendees.
Thompson wants to help golf grow on all levels, and among both females and males, but the trend among girls in the last couple of decades is particularly gratifying for players such as her on the LPGA Tour.
“It’s amazing,” the 22-year-old said. “That’s what we want. We want to see little girls pick up a club early and get involved in the game because it is an amazing sport. You learn a lot about yourself. We want to grow the game, so it’s great to see.
“The thing I’ve noticed is the number of little girls wearing the program shirts or hats that are out following us. There’s so many little girls out following us and that’s what we want to see. We want to see smiles on their faces when we sign something for them or are giving them high-fives between holes. Knowing that they play the game as well, and we have an impact on that, it means the world to us.”
Thompson points to organizations such as The First Tee, PGA Junior League and LPGA*USGA Girls Golf as key reasons the percentage of girls among junior players has grown markedly in the last couple of decades. For her part, Thompson serves as an ambassador for LPGA*USGA Girls Golf. The program features more than 400 sites around the world, reaching roughly 60,000 girls. Just in Colorado, 13 sites host LPGA*USGA Girls Golf programs. There are locations in Aspen, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Evergreen, Loveland and Pagosa Springs, besides seven in the Denver metro area. The CWGA coordinates and helps run the LPGA*USGA Girls Golf program based at CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora. For all the Colorado sites, CLICK HERE.
“Obviously I want to accomplish what I do on the golf course, but I want to give back to the game and grow it as well,” Thompson said. “Being part of that program is a huge honor. To get the girls involved in the game at a young age, and to see how excited they are to be involved with it, it means a lot to me to be part of it.
“I definitely embrace it. I notice the little girls that follow me the whole day (during rounds on the LPGA Tour), and I’ll sign and give them golf balls between holes and everything because it means a lot. They took time out of their lives to come out and watch me and support me. The least I can do is give them something signed. I really embrace it because I’m following my dreams and that’s what I want to show to them.”
And, perhaps more than most LPGA Tour players, Thompson can make a connection with girls. After all, at age 22, she’s not very far removed from being a girl herself. But she definitely took a more accelerated route to considerable success in the game than most.
Thompson qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior as a 13-year-old. She turned pro at 15 and won an LPGA Tour event as a 16-year-old. Now, at the grand old age of 22, she owns eight LPGA Tour victories, including one major. Thompson has captured one title this year, with five runner-up finishes.
“My No. 1 goal is to be in the Hall of Fame,” she said. “Besides that, the people I look up to like Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster, it’s not only because of what they’ve accomplished, but what they do for their fans, for their sponsors and how they’ve grown the game. People look up to them. That’s what I want to accomplish in life. I want people to look up to me and respect the game because they watch me play. I can accomplish all I want on the golf course, but if I give back to my fans and grow the game, that’s all I want.”
Thompson vividly remembers her first up-close interaction with LPGA Tour players, when she qualified for that first U.S. Women’s Open at age 12. And she keeps that in mind when she mixes with youngsters these days.
“At the Open I got to see Annika (Sorenstam) and Lorena (Ochoa) and Juli (Inkster); that was amazing on its own,” Thompson said. “I didn’t talk to them too much — I was a 12-year-old — but to see them on the range and the putting green, I was like, ‘I just watched you guys on TV last week or a few weeks ago.’ I looked up to them. That’s what drove me to be out there. I’m like, ‘I’m playing beside my role models.’ That’s what I want to be to the kids watching me.”
Indeed, whether she’s conversing with girls or boys, Thompson tries to provide a little inspiration to the impressionable kids.
“I always say to the little girls and boys to follow their dreams whether it’s in golf or anything they want to do in their lives — to go after what they want,” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work to achieve your goals in life, but don’t let anybody get in the way of that. Do something that you love; that’s the most important part.”
Although the LPGA doesn’t have a regular tour stop these days in Colorado, it was in this state where Thompson says she was the most nervous she’s ever been. That was at the 2013 Solheim Cup — the women’s version of the Ryder Cup — at Colorado Golf Club in Parker. Thompson was 18 at the time, and playing in the U.S. vs. Europe matches for the first time.
“I remember the first tee shot very vividly” with LPGA legend Lopez in the stands among those leading the fans in support of the U.S. team, Thompson said. “It’s pretty intense, a lot of adrenaline. It was the best feeling to hit that tee shot. Just to hear the USA chants … We didn’t play that well that week, but it was an incredible experience.
“That first tee shot there was the most nervous I’ve ever been. You’re playing for yourself, you’re playing for your team, you’re playing for your country, so there’s a lot more on the line. But I thrive on it. I love it.”
Next week in West Des Moines, Iowa, Thompson will participate in her third Solheim Cup. And if her excitment and that of the other competitors rubs off on girls — and boys and adults — perhaps golf will take another incremental step in the right direction.
Thompson’s exhibition was the second conducted by a big-time player this summer at Green Valley Ranch. David Duval did the honors in June — just as Hale Irwin, Ryan Palmer and Paula Creamer did last year. And on Aug. 25, Mark O’Meara will be putting one on for The First Tee of Pikes Peak at a Colorado Springs site to be determined.