It would have made sense for Lexi Thompson to aim to the middle of the green on the 18th hole at the CME Group Tour Championship on Sunday. With the pin tucked over on the right side, and Thompson holding a four-shot lead, there was no reason to fire at the pin. But fire she did. The ball landed about five feet from the cup, a decisive mark on what became a tournament of redemption and redefinition for Thompson.
The redemption story is a sweet one for Thompson. Last year at the same event, on the same 18th green, Thompson missed a two-foot putt that likely would have won the tournament. That gave Ariya Jutanugarn an opening; should she birdie the final two holes she would win the CME Group Tour Championship, and to strip Thompson of Player of the Year honors. Jutanugarn made the back-to-back birdies, and what would have been a storybook ending to Thompson’s season turned into a bit of a nightmare, tempered only by the $1 million bonus Thompson earned for winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe.
This time, Thompson could have five-putted the 18th green and still walked away with the win. She missed the birdie putt and had about two feet coming back for par. She confidently holed it, her 18-under total giving her a four-shot victory over Nelly Korda. Instead of consoling hugs from her friends and family as she walked off the 18th green, this year she shared the winning moment with her brother Curtis, who after failing in a Monday qualifier to make the field in the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic, was pressed into service as her caddie. Then she was showered in celebratory champagne.
The story of how this win is one of redefinition for Thompson is more complicated. It is about the mindset of a young woman, still only 23, and how in the quest to play quality golf, tending to self off the course is as important as spending time on the range.
It became clear there was something amiss when Thompson withdrew from the Ricoh Women’s British Open. That one WD turned into a month-long leave from the LPGA. She took to Instagram to explain: “I have not truly felt like myself for quite some time,” Thompson wrote on Instagram. “I am therefore taking this time to recharge my mental batteries, and to focus on myself away from the game of professional golf.”
For an Instagram account full of images of Thompson working out and playing golf, her honest, open post about needing to maintain her mental health was as surprising as it was commendable. After the year she had in 2017 with the rules debacle at the ANA and the missed putt at the CME, combined with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, no one could argue that she needed time off.
After her break, Thompson’s game still was off. She missed two cuts — a rarity for her. And she was still winless. That wouldn’t be a significant note for many players, but Thompson had won at least one event each season since the 2013 season.
A few weeks before the CME Group Tour Championship, Thompson posted another message on Instagram that was again out of her normal social media cadence. In this post, she opened up about the struggles she’s had with body image. The post garnered support and attention from her fans, with other young women chiming in with their own experiences, and parents applauding Thompson as an inspiration for their daughters.
In these two instances on social media, Thompson did something that has showed herself in a new light. Yes, she played in her first U.S. Women’s Open as a 12-year-old, and yes, she turned pro when she was just 16, and no, she didn’t go to a normal high school or have a high schooler’s normal existence. But the message she was imparting was clear: Lexi Thompson is more than just a golfer.
It sounds obvious, and that eight-word proclamation is a simple one to write out. But the essence of it is more complex. And it’s likely so because Thompson has never really shown herself as anything other than a golfer. Obviously she’s a normal person with normal experiences. But the public largely sees her as a competitive, powerful, driven athlete. Her grit and toughness and greatness made her stand apart. Now, she is redefining herself as a young woman with struggles, and that not even a successful athletic career can shield you from the very human reality of being 23 and needing to take care of yourself.
“It’s been a long year,” Thompson said after the trophy ceremony at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla., “Just the up and downs and just the things I’ve been dealing with, they all kind of hit me this year. To be able to end the year like this and just keep on fighting throughout the whole year has meant the world to me. Just shows anything is possible. You have to fight through whatever you’re going through.”
Lexi Thompson is not just a golfer. But if she is anything, she is resilient.