NAPLES, Fla. – At 23 years old, Lexi Thompson has been talking more about balance. Not just with her swing, but in life.
She’s endured the odd penalties, family traumas. But more broadly, she’s living the burden of being immersed in elite golf for a decade with all the pressures that go with such an existence. Thompson skipped a major this summer to begin sorting things out, played sparingly this fall and showed up for the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club for the LPGA’s season-ending event having parted ways with Kevin McAlpine, her caddie since early 2017.
But Thursday, with one of her older brothers, Curtis, on the bag for not only yardages but also levity, Thompson the golfer had a fine round. She shot 7-under 65, hitting 13 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens to be in fourth place after 18 holes, two strokes behind leader Amy Olson.
“I’m doing well,” Thompson said, referring to a journey of self-discovery. “It’s definitely a process. I’ve been working on myself a lot with just going to therapists or just trying to figure myself out off the golf course, because I’m not just the golfer Lexi. That’s what I want people to know, and not expect so much out of me.”
Thompson has been a nationally known golf prodigy since she was a child. She qualified to play in the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 12. She won the first of her nine LPGA events when she was only 16, at the time the youngest to win on the LPGA.
“You get tired. It’s a lot,” said Curtis, a 25-year-old pro who has competed on the Web.com Tour. “She has a lot of fans, a lot of people that she’s trying to play well for.”
Thompson was going to have her father, Scott, caddie this week, but when Curtis shot a 65 in a Monday qualifier for The RSM Classic on the PGA Tour and didn’t make it into the field, he was available.
“We made a good team,” Thompson said of McAlpine. “I just felt like it was time for a break. It wasn’t quite working at the time — just needed a little change. Having my brother out here on my bag is a great change. His personality, he gets along great with everybody and is so upbeat and positive.”
From the start of the round, it was clear Curtis helped lighten the mood for his younger sister.
“I don’t think she gets too shaken up with me out there,” he said. “I can say some funny stuff. I can stuff that other people can’t that she thinks is decently funny. You know, if she gets jittery or something like that, maybe I can talk her back down. That’s what I’m out there for.”
In addition to having a familiar face on the bag, Thompson has returned to her old shot pattern: a right-to-left draw that had gotten away from her.
“She’s trying to make it easier on herself,” Curtis said, “knowing that, OK, she’s going to stand up over a shot and aim five yards right and the ball is going to come back and she knows that. That’s what she’s trying to do, trying to make the same swing over and over.”
She was so confident with her swing Thursday that Curtis said was easy to work for her.
“As long as I give her the right numbers,” he said, “it’s going to be in the right spot. It was unbelievable.”
Thompson’s round was highlighted by a 12-foot eagle putt on the par-5 sixth hole after a 220-yard 4-iron. She lipped out a 10-foot eagle attempt on No. 17.
“It’s only the first day so I’m trying to take it one shot at a time,” Thompson said. “It was nice to have day like this. I knew game was there. It was just all a matter of everything coming together and being 100 percent confident with my little swing changes that I’ve been working on.”
Tweaking a mindset — to maintain a good perspective about a pursuit in which you have been immersed for most of your life — is more difficult.
It was just all a matter of everything coming together and being 100 percent confident with my little swing changes that I’ve been working on.
“It’s hard to believe [that golf is a game] because I do take it very seriously,” Thompson said. “I mean, it’s been my life for a very long time. I have come to realize it is just a game, and I have an amazing family and amazing fans no matter good or bad.”
Some members of her gallery that stood out on Thursday. There were members of the German national team, some of them with their eyes on countrywoman Caroline Masson, who was grouped with Thompson and Eun-Hee Ji for the first round. They are young women who hope their golf futures are as bright as the flag on their shirts, that they are soon walking on the other side of the rope.
And there was someone of a different age: 89-year-old Marilynn Smith, one of 13 LPGA founders, one of just three who survive. Smith is familiar with the joys and pitfalls of making a game your work. In her playing days, Smith, a 21-time champion who won tournaments in three decades, was what Thompson is now: a fan favorite, a top American female golfer. She always tried to have a smile for those who enjoyed watching her play.
So as everyone made their way from one hole to the next, Smith had a smile for Thompson, knowing exactly what she was going through.
“Growing up,” Thompson said, “golf was always in my blood. I knew what came with it.”
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be learning along the way.