Imagine that you’re a young professional golfer. Now imagine that in the space of one season you have been central to one of the biggest rules fiascos of modern times on the way to losing a major championship, you’ve been dealt the news that your mother has cancer, your grandmother has passed away, and you’ve thrown away one of the biggest tournaments of the year by yipping a two-foot putt on the final green.
Now imagine that during the above tumultuous stretch, you won twice on the worldwide stage and claimed the tour’s season-long prize for the standout player throughout the year.
That’s exactly what Lexi Thompson did last year. Given the circumstances, it might just be one of the single most underappreciated seasons in golf history.
Just how does one person go through so much, on and off the golf course, yet be so incredibly successful?
Clearly, Thompson didn’t let her troubles get the better of her in 2017 – she channelled her inner disappointment, anger and sadness into performances on the course to devastating effect.
But the truth is it was bound to catch up with her at some point, and that point just happened to be the past 12 months.
Thompson didn’t start the 2018 season particularly badly, with top-5s in both of her first two starts, but it was shortly after that when things started to go awry – a six-event stretch without a top-10, hinting at the possibility that all wasn’t well, both with the state of her game and the space between her ears.
It all came to a head soon after a poor week at the Marathon Classic in the middle of July. Thompson announced that she would be withdrawing from the British Open – the penultimate major of the year – to take a break from the sport.
“It is extremely difficult for me not to play in this prestigious major, but I realised recently that I need to take some time to work on myself,” Thompson revealed on Instagram.
In the post, she added: “The events of the past year and a half, on and off the golf course, have taken a tremendous toll on me both mentally and emotionally. I have not truly felt like myself for quite some time.
“I am therefore taking this time to recharge my mental batteries, and to focus on myself away from the game of professional golf.”
The hiatus lasted only four weeks as Thompson returned to defend her title at the Indy Women in Tech Championship in Indianapolis, but it was clear to many that in those few weeks, she hadn’t found what she was seeking.
Thompson went on to miss the cut by six at the Canadian Open and then, at the Evian Championship, the final major of the year, she flubbed a chip on the final green which pretty much confirmed a missed cut – her first weekend off in a major in more than five years, and the first time since 2014 that she had missed more than one cut in a season. As she lined up her consolation putt in France, the 23-year-old – in front of cameras, playing partners and fans – wiped away tears.
But perhaps it was at this very moment, overlooking Lac Leman, that Thompson finally stumbled upon what she had been seeking all this time. A little more than seven years ago, Thompson won for the first time on the LPGA Tour at the Navistar LPGA Classic, becoming the youngest ever winner on the circuit at just 16. At the time, while her friends were still in high school, Thompson was a world star, thrust into the spotlight as she quickly became the poster girl for American golf.
Golf has always been Thompson’s life, ever since she qualified for the US Amateur in 2007 as a 12-year-old; breaking down on the 18th green and finally disclosing her pent-up emotion in Evian-les-Bains proved to be the moment that she detached herself from the game, and in the process coming to the realisation that she is simply a normal person with a normal life who just so happens to play golf to a very high standard.
Sure enough, two months after those tears, Thompson was back to her very best at the season-finale – the CME Group Tour Championship. She returned to playing her stock draw shot, sending the ball well out to the right before it slings back to its target like a guided missile. With older brother Curtis on the bag after splitting with long time caddie Kevin McAlpine, she oozed a sense of control and indeed calmness that hadn’t been seen in over a year.
And so the full-circle was complete. Last November, Thompson completely missed the hole from two feet on the 18th as she handed the title to Ariya Jutanugarn, kick-starting a 12-month downward spiral. One year later, with soul-searching complete, Thompson tapped in on the 18th at Tiburon Golf Club for her 10th LPGA Tour title.
Now happy with life on and off the course, Thompson is content with herself as a person first and golfer second.