Monday, September 19, 2011

Navistar Classic Sunday: Lexi Thompson Comes of Age

One moment from the final round of the Navistar Classic will live forever in my memory.   It came on the 16th tee, seconds after Lexi Thompson, who had seen her lead shrink from 7 shots to 3 after making back-to-back bogeys for the 1st time all week even as playing partner Tiffany Joh began a run of 4 birdies in a row, realized that her tee shot on the short par 3 had caught the same ridge Joh's had just earlier and tracked even closer to the cup than had Joh's stellar approach.  The Golf Channel's cameras, zooming in on the pair near their bags as they waited for Meena Lee to tee off, captured the perfect reaction shot:  Joh looked back at Thompson, Thompson caught her eye, and both players began laughing in awe and disbelief at what they had just done.  From their body language after their balls had left their clubs, it looked like each thought she had pulled her shot too far left to catch the ridge, so there was a little bit of relief in that not-quite-girlish not-quite-giggle, but on the whole I would say it was more of a kind of "Can you believe what we just did?" amazed laugh.  For two young golfers in the heat of career-defining competition to share a moment like that was simply awesome, and speaks volumes to how entertaining and inspiring the LPGA can be.  The mutual respect and enjoyment in each other's achievements they exhibited then carried over to their post-round interviews and is something everyone in sports should try to learn from and emulate.  But the best thing about it was its spontaneity.

I have to add that as a super-fan of Joh's (and of close finishes no matter who's involved), I sure wish she had sunk that 8-footer to make it 5 straight birdies and put extra pressure on the 16-year-old phenom, and I definitely wish she hadn't chunked her little wedge approach on the par-5 17th.  But, hey, at least she put together a better finish over those last three holes than the bogey-double-bogey end to Friday's round that in retrospect really cost her the tournament.  More important, her solo 2nd was the best finish of her short LPGA career, moving her up to #33 on the money list, to a (distant) #2 in the Rookie of the Year race behind Hee Kyung Seo and ahead of Ryann O'Toole, and to #5 on the points list for the 2013 Solheim Cup.  Joh's birdie run helped her steal low rookie honors from the ever-steady Jenny Shin, whose putter finally caught up on Sunday with her amazing ball-striking all tournament (Shin ended up hitting 62 of 72 greens on the Senator course, 1 fewer than Thompson, and making only 3 bogeys all week, 2 fewer than Thompson), and from Jennifer Johnson, whose commitment to donate half of her winnings to the Wounded Warriors project won her even more respect than her -8 total for the week.  And best of all, it means she gets to travel to Asia in October and November and maybe get used to challenging the "big guns" she confessed to feeling intimidated by after the Wegmans LPGA Championship in June. 

OK, enough about the player who came in 2nd by 5 shots to the player everyone--from Hound Dog to Karen Crouse, Beth Ann Baldry to Randall MellGeoff Shackelford to the SI guysStephanie Wei to Emily Kay, Armchair Golfer to Jeff Skinner--can't stop talking about.  And why should we?  Lexi Thompson made history at the Navistar and there's every reason to expect her to continue doing so.  Sure, she got a little lucky that so many top golfers skipped the event, Ya Ni Tseng played badly, Suzann Pettersen played hurt, Stacy Lewis couldn't get along with her putter, Cristie Kerr missed the cut, and the rest of those who did make it seemed to be playing Chutes and Ladders rather than elite golf, but the bottom line is that Thompson put it all together in a week nobody else could.  Does this mean she would dominate the LPGA were Mike Whan to decide after the Solheim Cup to allow her to start her rookie season in 2012 at age 17 (as he so obviously should)?  I think not.  Before golfoblogorama crowns her Rookie of the Year more than a year in advance, it's worth pointing out that the KLPGA's So Yeon Ryu, who won a much more pressure-packed event on a much more difficult course and who has loads more experience with the ups and downs of professional golf, has already made it known that she'll be a member of the Class of '12, that Sydnee Michaels could well be the Ryann O'Toole of that class, and that there are plenty of great golfers who will be playing the 2nd stage at the end of September who should join them and who don't plan on getting beaten by Thompson by 10 or more shots (as she did in the 1st stage) every tournament they enter.  What's more, for every Paula Creamer and Ji-Yai Shin and Ya Ni Tseng who take off quickly as rookies, there are many more (like '11ers Jennifer Song and Jessica Korda, '10ers Amanda Blumenherst and Mina Harigae, '09ers Stacy Lewis, Mika Miyazato, and Vicky Hurst, and '08ers Amy Yang, Momoko Ueda, Hee Young Park, and Shanshan Feng--just to name a few) who are taking the long way to greatness.  Heck, even Lorena and Annika's rookie seasons weren't all that incredible.

As for toppling the Tseng Dynasty, which I speculated on only a day ago, only time will tell.  Now is the time to appreciate what a fantastic week Lexi put together, enjoy the spirit of excellence, competitiveness, and camaraderie she embodied, and look forward to the Solheim Cup!

[Update 1 (11:49 pm):  Wow, not only does bangkokbobby appear to be on the same writing schedule as me, he even came up with the same idea for his title as I did for mine!  Clearly a great minds moment!]

[Update 2 (9/20/11, 9:59 am):  Here's Ruthless Mike's overview of and take on the membership question.]

1 comment:

Tony Jesselli (Tonyj5) said...

"For two young golfers in the heat of career-defining competition to share a moment like that was simply awesome, and speaks volumes to how entertaining and inspiring the LPGA can be".

Your above quote could not have been said better. It is why I love the LPGA, why I write this blog.