In blustery, cold (relatively speaking) and generally tough conditions on Sunday at PGA National, Michael Thompson showed grit and composure on the way to his first PGA Tour victory.
What’s interesting is when Thompson started the week, he had zero expectations. And when he was in second place after 36 holes, the 27-year-old native of Tucson, Arizona, was just happy he had made the cut. After all, he was off to a rough start in 2013, with three missed cuts and T78 in his first four events of the season.
In fact, in the last event he played, the Northern Trust Open, he shot 78-80 and finished at the very bottom of the leaderboard. Two weeks later, Thompson, who played his college golf at the University of Alabama and resides in Birmingham, found his roll.
“Last tournament he finished dead last,” said Thompson’s wife Rachel, who has a doctorate in physical therapy from Emory University, when asked for the key to his change in form. “After being at the very bottom and being completely broken down and feeling like he had nothing going for him, I think he just focused on enjoying the game again.
“I feel he was playing for himself and the passion he has for golf, rather than trying to please people and everyone around him. He was able to let go of all the expectations after that last-place finish.”
Rachel’s detailed analysis and insight on her husband’s game was spot-on (and another writer suggested she could basically be an analyst, which I agree with). You know what they say, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you turn things around. Or something like that.
“The start of the year wasn’t great for me,” said Thompson, who shot a final-round one-under 69, nine-under total. “I thought I would come out and play great. As a golfer, that’s what you want to believe. But however I do believe the Lord has different plans, and the best way He can humble us is by allowing us to experience a low point; whether it’s rock bottom or just the bottom of wherever you are, to me, I’ve always had a lot of pride I guess in my game, and a strong identity in who I am as a golfer. I wasn’t living up to those expectations that I set on myself.
“My coach, my wife and I, we all just kind of put our heads together and said, what do we need to do in order to get better. You know, I was having thoughts of, I’m going to miss every cut this year. I’m not going to play great at all; I’m going to lose my card and then what.
“We started talking, well, if that happens, I’ll play in the Web.com Tour, or I’ll even go back to the Hooters Tour or the NGA Tour. As long as I have a place to play golf, I’m going to be happy. And that give me a lot of comfort and allowed me to just focus on what I like to do on the range, work a lot on my chipping, work on my putting and trying to hit that low fade that I love to hit.
“The Northern Trust was a good thing in my life. It allowed me to focus on what I needed to do in order to play like I did this week.”
Golf is known for its volatility and all pros go through ups-and-downs throughout their careers. Some of those low points provide players time to reevaluate their games mechanically and mentally, and you can learn the most about yourself and grow from it (which sounds cheesy and cliche but it’s true). Finishing last at Riviera allowed Thompson to take a step back and remind himself to enjoy the process and liberate himself from results and all those great expectations.
Thompson, who will tell you himself that he’s not the best ballstriker in the world, stayed patient and put on a short-game clinic, including key saves on Nos. 10, 11 and 14 to fend off Geoff Ogilvy’s valiant eleventh-hour effort and secure a two-stroke victory.
“The one on 10 was big to get some momentum again after kind of a bad bogey on 9,” said Thompson, referring to those “huge” saves. “And 11, I hit a great tee shot.”
His approach came up just short of the 11th green, and he had a straightforward pitch with a good lie in the rough to knock it to about 3-4 feet. Then, on the 14th, he hit a great drive down the middle of the fairway, but with a 3-iron in hand, his approach only went 185 yards because of a big gust of wind that came up against him. He said he hit an “absolutely perfect” chip.
He added: “And that’s kind of the way I’ve been chipping this week and this weekend, particularly, is that I’ve just given myself good chances to make par. And on a course like this, that’s all you can ask for.”
Thompson finished runner-up at the U.S. Open — which is known for being the toughest grind of the year — at Olympic Club last year. He’s done well at tournaments with difficult course setups, where sometimes simply par is good enough. He said when he played at Alabama, he hit the fewest number of fairways and greens compared to the rest of the team, but he made the most birdies.
“I think I’ve always been a scrappy player,” he said. “I’m not a great ballstriker. I think I’m pretty good. I was pretty good this week.
“But my putting is what saves me and then I’ve really improved my chipping since being out on Tour. I think those changes have kind of rounded off my game so to speak. I think I’ve always been very good of having mindset of go struggle, just go get it done. Get the ball in the hole.”
Indeed, he was almost automatic from inside 10-15 feet. I was shocked when he missed a short putt for par on No. 16 because he felt the nerves. But he composed himself for another tester on the 17th. When he made his par putt, he was pointing at the hole, explaining that he was telling the ball to go where it belonged.
Added Rachel: “He likes courses that are challenging because he doesn’t feel like he has to make a lot of birdies. He’s going to get some birdie chances and he made lots of long putts this week. His putting was on fire. He doesn’t feel like he has to hit it to five feet on every hole because that’s what everyone else is doing. He can just hit it to middle of the green and make a 25-footer or 35-footer. He’s good at that kind of stuff.”
She also implied at courses with easier setups Michael doesn’t feel like he has to be as perfect.
“I think that’s what gets into his head,” she said. “If you miss a fairway, if you miss a green, you hit it in the bunker, it’s no big deal because everyone is doing the same thing.”
Compared to the first four starts, Thompson was calmer and much more confident, especially over the weekend. From walking the back nine with him on Sunday, it was clear after I saw him play the 10th that this week belonged to him.
“I think he just felt anything is going to be better than what I’ve been going through all year,” said Rachel, who has been married to Michael for two-and-a-half years yet the couple still hasn’t found time to take a honeymoon.
“It’s kind of like when he made it through Q-school. He knew he was going to be on the Nationwide Tour instead of the Hooters Tour. Out here, he knew he had made the cut and was going to have a strong finish, whereas the rest of the year he hadn’t really done anything. I think that took pressure off because he knew he was doing better.”
Things sure are looking up for Thompson. With this victory against a star-studded field, he jumped 86 spots from No. 114 to No. 45 in the world rankings. As a result of his second-place finish at last year’s U.S. Open, he had already secured invites to the Masters and the U.S. Open, which are nice, but now, he also has job security for two years. He also earned his way into the WGCs. He will play in his first one this upcoming week at the Cadillac Championship in Doral.
“I think that will provide a level of comfort knowing that I’ve got job security for two more years. I get new experiences this year to play in the WGCs. That’s been a goal ever since I got out on Tour. And to do it in this fashion is unbelievable.
“You know, it just all part of the process, all part of my journey. My journey is very different from everybody else’s, and you know, I just want to enjoy it and learn from it, be excited, struggle through it. There’s going to be more down times that I’m going to have to fight through, and that’s just the nature of golf. It’s here one week, gone the next.”
Interesting enough, Thompson tweeted on February 23, “If you want to see sunshine you have to weather the storm.”
With all the perks that come along with winning, one of them includes setting a schedule and picking the events that suit your game better than others. There also isn’t pressure to play in everything. That said, I hope the Thompsons are able to find time to take a honeymoon this year!
(AP Photo/Palm Beach Post, Allen Eyestone)