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Lexi Thompson, a pro at 16, could be 'very, very good' LPGA player

NORTH PLAINS - The future of the LPGA Tour could be any of a number of young hopefuls, but it definitely could be Alexis Thompson.

'Lexi' has a sexy, potent game, and the 16-year-old from Coral Springs, Fla., could become women's golf's next great player.

There are many youngsters who have proven to be flash-in-the-pans, and Thompson has a long way to go. Still, the early returns are promising enough that she is on the radar screen of those in the know.

'She is such a great player, with so much talent and so much potential,' said Jaclyn Sweeney, 22, a tour rookie who played collegiately at Oklahoma State. 'It's hard when you're coming from the amateur level, where there aren't a lot of expectations. You can go out and play pretty freely.

'Then you go to the professional level, where you have sponsorship commitments and a lot of things going on. It's difficult to balance everything and still be a kid.'

Thompson may still be a kid, but she plays golf like an adult. She shot 3-over-par 74 in Friday's first round of the LPGA Safeway Classic at Pumpkin Ridge's Ghost Creek course, but it could have been better.

'I didn't score as well as I hit it,' the 5-10 Thompson said. 'I only hit about three bad shots. I was airmailing greens. I was hitting it 20 yards farther (than her partners). It was weird.'

Thompson is playing a handful of LPGA events this year and is at the Safeway Classic via a sponsor's exemption. In May, she made a bid to become the youngest winner in LPGA history, going into the final day tied for the lead at the Avnet Classic in Mobile, Ala. But she closed with a 78 and finished tied for 19th.

'I actually wasn't that nervous, surprisingly,' she said. 'I don't know why I scored like that, but it happens. It's golf.'

Thompson became the youngest player ever to compete in the U.S. Women's Open when she qualified at age 12. She failed to make the cut, but it remains a memory she'll always cherish.

'That was crazy,' she said. 'Just being there was an amazing experience. I was so excited. At 12, I didn't have the length for that golf course, but it was fun.

'Just seeing all the players - it was like, 'Oh my God, I see them on TV.' I was more like starstruck. But then I got used to it.'

Playing in her fourth straight U.S. Women's Open last month, Thompson finished tied for 10th, earning her first professional check for $72,131. A few weeks earlier, after going 4-0-1 in helping the U.S. win the amateur Curtis Cup competition, she made the decision to turn pro.

Two weeks after the U.S. Women's Open, Thompson tied for second at the Evian Masters, finishing one shot back and earning $242,711.

Thompson's results in her half-dozen LPGA events this year haven't been as good, but she's not perplexed about it.

'I'm hitting the ball pretty good,' she said with a shrug. 'I know I'm not scoring as well as I should, but I feel like my game is coming around. Just got to work a little bit more, and I'll be good.'

Golf runs in the family. An older brother, Nicholas, plays on the Nationwide Tour. Another brother, Curtis, plays at Louisiana State. Lexi was enough of a wunderkind to win the U.S. Junior Girls title at age 13 in 2008.

Her father, Scott, caddies for her and travels with her. He said was not a difficult decision to let her turn pro at age 15.

'She had been bugging her mom and myself for a long time,' he said. 'It was her decision, and she made a good one. She's ready. She's had her ups and downs out here, and she has handled herself real well. I'm proud of her.'

LPGA rules stipulate a player must be 18 for full-fledged membership. Last December, Thompson's petition to play up to 12 LPGA events was denied, but she received a waiver that allowed her to take part in the tour's Qualifying School.

In the first of three stages at Daytona Beach, Fla., Thompson ruled the field by a whopping 10 strokes, shooting 23 under-par for four rounds.

'I just went out and free-swinged, and it went really well for me,' said Thompson, who proceeds to the second stage Sept. 27-Oct. 1 at Venice, Fla.

In February, she won a men's Fuzion Minor League Tour event on her home course. Women are allowed to play at 94 percent of the distance at which the men play.

'I do those when I have a big break in between events,' she said. 'I play in tournament mode. I don't really play to play against men.'

Thompson takes classes online and will earn her high school diploma next spring. Her father believes she is getting a different kind of education through golf.

'She has grown up fast,' he said. 'She has been around adults her whole life. She has adapted well. I'm glad she's out here. It's good for her. She's done a lot of traveling, too.'

Indeed. She has already competed this year in the Women's Australian Open (missed cut) and the Ladies Irish Open (tied for 24th) in addition to her domestic events.

At 16, Thompson has become a big hitter, perhaps among the top five or 10 in women's golf. On Friday, she went driver/lob wedge on the 430-yard par-four 18th hole, smashing her drive about 320.

'She didn't hit the ball bad,' her father said. 'The greens were really hard by the time we played (in the afternoon). They were dried out and the balls were releasing too much. We just didn't get any good birdie looks.'

Scott Thompson isn't predicting his daughter will be the next Nancy Lopez or Annika Sorenstam or Lorena Ochoa. He believes, though, that Lexi has a chance.

'She is going to be a very, very good LPGA player as soon as we learn the ropes out here,' he said. 'She is going to be good.'

I like Thompson's on-course demeanor as much as her talent. She doesn't get too worked up over a bad shot. She seems to be capable of stopping to smell the roses along the way, and realizes how fortunate she is.

'It has always been my dream to play on the LPGA Tour,' she said with a smile. 'I'm fulfilling that, and it's been great. Getting to experience all of this is amazing.'