Sep
19
2011
Hey, LPGA, How About a Little Laxity Re Lexi?
By Stephanie Wei under LPGA

Lexi: the answer to filling the void of a dominant American star?

16-year-old American Lexi Thompson trumped the history books on Sunday, beating the field by five shots at the Navistar LPGA Classic to become the youngest winner ever on the LPGA. During a tough stretch for the struggling women’s tour that’s lacking star power and trying to remain relevant with only 23 events on its schedule — the lowest number since 1971 — Lexi’s dominant victory couldn’t have come at a better time.

But LPGA commissioner Mike Whan delivered a major buzzkill.

Normally, a win would be enough to be granted membership on the LPGA, but at 16 years, 7 months and 8 days, Lexi doesn’t meet the age requirement of 18.

To become a member, Thompson would have to petition the LPGA to waive the 18-year-old age requirement, which the tour already waived for qualifying school. On Sunday, Whan sounded like Lexi would have to endure the last two stages of Q-school (she won the first stage in July by ten shots).  “Should Lexi qualify for LPGA membership via her Q-School performance, she will be an LPGA member for the 2012 season,” Whan said in a statement.

I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how the LPGA and Whan managed to take a win-win situation served to them on a silver platter and turn it into a PR flop.

“It’s kind of silly,” veteran Juli Inkster said. “I think it makes us, the LPGA, look bad too. She has proved she can play out here. Now you have to go to qualifying school? To me that’s silly.”

That’s been the general consensus.

I understand Whan thinks he’s doing the right thing by citing tour protocol, but sometimes the “right” thing isn’t black and white. I’m having a hard time picturing PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem making such a mess of a golden PR opportunity. Finchem probably would have issued a statement, saying something like, “Congratulations to Lexi for her incredible achievement. While she has to officially petition the tour to wave the age requirement, we expect it to be approved and we look forward to welcoming her as a member starting in the 2012 season.”

Thompson’s agent Bobby Kreusler was already busy writing the petition on Monday, according to GolfChannel.com’s Randall Mell.

“We are going to be filing a petition, but I don’t want to say anything more at this point,” Kreusler told Mell. “It’s not something we want to focus on during the week of the Solheim Cup.”

By all accounts, Whan seems like a straightforward and fair commish, and under normal circumstances, his comments would have been the right call. I understand the concerns the Tour’s facing when dealing with teen prodigies — there are plenty of bad stories that come out of kids turning pro too early and the LPGA doesn’t want to exploit a 16 year old. Good on them, but she’s playing, anyway, so why continue having a combative relationship with the Thompson family and embarrassing themselves in the process?

Lexi has proven she can compete and dominate at an LPGA event. She’s from a golfing family where one older brother, Curtis, plays at LSU and the other, Nick, competes on the Nationwide Tour. She’s made it clear she wants to devote her life to playing professional golf and she’s proven she’s mature enough to handle the downsides of the limelight.

Golf Channel on-course announcer and interviewer Jerry Foltz, who has covered every LPGA event aired on the Golf Channel except for the Navistar, was impressed with Lexi’s composure after a disappointing finish. Entering Sunday with a tie for the 54-hole lead at the Avnet LPGA Classic in May, Lexi shot 78 in the final round, including two double-bogeys on the final nine. Lexi was understandably pretty upset and initially refused the interview, but her dad and agent talked to her, and at the last minute, Lexi agreed to speak with Foltz, who said she handled herself with “the emotional poise of a 30-year-old woman.”

I agree with Whan and the LPGA’s concerns and precautions — a precedent shouldn’t be set so any 15- or 16-year-old should be able to join the pro ranks, but each case should be judged independently. With Lexi’s already-impressive resume (T2 at ’10 Evian Masters, T10 at ’10 US Women’s Open, etc.), her dominating performance and ability to close out in style (she birdied 16 and 17 for the KO) speaks for itself.

I said this in our roundtable over at Golf.com, but I’ll say it again: It’s not the LPGA’s job to parent. The tour’s job is to give the best players in the world a place to play.

(To be honest, I’m not a big fan of throwing teens onto the professional circuit and I don’t think I’d make some of the same parenting choices — home-school, turning pro at 15 — but Lexi’s situation is an exception.)

“It was really special to watch Lexi yesterday putting her name in the history books,” Foltzy told me on the phone. “Her ensuing petition for membership should be nothing more than a formality. I couldn’t fathom that it would ever be anything but assured.

“If she is forced to play in the second stage of Q-school to qualify for a tour that she just dominated this weekend, then I’m missing something.”

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)