LAS VEGAS — Lexi Thompson attracted crowds to TPC Summerlin that were bigger and more boisterous than had been seen on a Thursday or Friday at the Shriners Children's Open in more than a decade.
During the first round, the billowing crowd included men who had found their way to the game back when there were few girls golf teams in schools and women’s access to country club courses and clubhouses was restricted or altogether prohibited.
Exclusion breeds contempt, which perhaps explains why several of these men bemoaned her presence in a field of men that included current and former Ryder Cup participants and former major winners. More than one said out loud for any ear to hear, “She’s not going to break 80.”
The next day, as Thompson completed her suspended first round by getting up and down for par on 18 from scruffy fringe, deftly negotiating sand in front of her and a turtle shell green that sloped on the far end to water to salvage a 2-over 73, a few of those same men were heard muttering, “That was pretty impressive.”
By Friday’s end, Thompson, an 11-time LPGA Tour winner from Delray Beach, had earned much grudging respect, flirting with the cut on her way to a two-under 69. Her 36-hole score of even par left her tied for 85th in the field of 129 (three players withdrew after starting the tournament).
Patrick Lindsey, the tournament's executive director, did his part by bestowing upon Thompson, 28, a precious unrestricted sponsor exemption. Thompson did her part by delivering fans and a respectable showing. Now it’s time for others wielding power in the sport of golf to step up.
Thoroughly modern women like Thompson, Brittany Lincicome, Michelle Wie West and Annika Sorenstam — all outliers who have made PGA tour starts — might not be as compelled to cross over into the men’s competitive space if the men in charge of golf at its highest levels did more to accommodate and advertise them.
A few years have passed since the PGA Tour entered into a much-ballyhooed alliance with the LPGA, ostensibly to grow both tours. So far, the PGA Tour has taken advantage of the LPGA’s connections and stature in South Korea, where the women’s game is more popular than the men’s, to grow its corporate and competitive influence there while the women have gotten … what? A mixed-team event in what amounts to the offseason? A television contract that does the opposite of showcasing the LPGA Tour?
It is no longer in the sport’s best interest to silo the men’s and women’s games at the highest levels. Thompson’s performance, and the public embrace of her presence in the field, make clear that the time is now for the PGA and LPGA tours to create high-profile events that bring the top men’s and women’s players to the same tournament site in the same week, using multiple courses for separate but entwined competitions. Imagine tennis’ Miami Open, where fans and media come to behold Carlos Alcaraz and stay to watch Delray Beach's Coco Gauff (or vice versa).
Time for Rahm, McIlroy, Tiger to compete alongside top LPGA players
Such events exist in Europe and Australia. While they’ve been critical successes, they seldom attract the best players, especially on the men’s side. With the PGA Tour in the midst of reimagining itself, now’s the perfect time for an outside-the-box move to genuinely grow the game and create more interest. Expand the limited-field designated events to allow the likes of Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods to elevate Lilia Vu, Celine Boutier and Jin Young Ko and others in at least two co-sponsored tournaments a year.
If not for uplifting reasons, do it for pragmatic purposes. As recent headlines have demonstrated, the PGA Tour’s monopolistic stronghold is profoundly problematic. It has no place in a sport that is experiencing exponential growth outside America and beyond the old boys’ club.
Speaking of the boys’ club, who else possesses the generosity of spirit to follow the lead of Justin Rose, and his wife, Kate, who started the Rose Ladies Series in the UK and have been quite active in promoting it? Where is the golf version of Kobe Bryant, a self-proclaimed “girl dad” who held camps for WNBA players at his Mamba Sports Academy and quietly mentored many rising women’s players, including Sabrina Ionescu?
Game recognizes game. Why doesn’t golf have someone like tennis star Andy Murray, who can reliably be counted on to celebrate the successes of WTA players on his social media platforms?
Golf still has too many men, including peers of Thompson in last week's field, who can’t seem to see the bigger picture for their own self-interest or ego. Men who couldn’t see the value of a joint Team USA Ryder Cup/Solheim Cup final roster reveal, for example, or of Thompson exposing herself to potential ridicule to inspire the next generation.
Thompson was more uniquely suited for this stage than arguably anyone else on the women’s tour. She is comfortable going toe-to-toe with men, having grown up playing with and competing against her older brothers, Nicholas and Curtis, on the same courses and from the same tees. She loved playing a course that was nearly 1,000 yards longer than she is used to because she didn't have to think about what club, a 3-wood or 2-iron, to use off the tee. She just took her driver and let it rip.
And having been anointed the face of American women’s golf at the age of 16, at the time of her first LPGA Tour victory, Thompson has had every facet of her game, her physical appearance and her deportment scrutinized for more than a decade. The extra media responsibilities and public attention that Thompson faced here she is well used to.
The two-round tournament stats reflected both the challenges that confronted Thompson and the strengths that rendered her up to the task. She ranked 120th in the field in driving distance (301 yards) and tied for eighth in driving accuracy, finding 20 of 28 fairways. Since she was hitting longer irons to firm greens, her lag putting prowess was on full display; she ranked 44th in strokes gained putting.
The outside-the-ropes chatter reflected the greatest challenge that confronts any LPGA player. There was only so much Thompson could do about that.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Lexi Thompson misses cut at Shriners Children's Open but earns respect