Lexi THompson 2024 KPMG WOmen’s PGA. Lexi Thompson at the 2024 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

In soccer you know generally, where you’ll be able to spot Lionel Messi from your seat and in basketball you know that LeBron James will either be on the court or he’ll be on the bench and in football you have a good sense of when you might see Patrick Mahomes. But watching golf is more like following a cross-country meet or some sort of slow-motion, meandering NASCAR race. The players are there and then they’re gone and your only options are to chase ’em around or enjoy the limited time they’re on the hole where you’ve posted up.

At golf tournaments, this has the effect of enhancing the larger-than-life quality of the competitors you’ve been waiting to see. Their time before you is precious and finite; you anticipate their arrival, you see them hit a shot or two and then they continue to the next station so when they’re there you’re trained on their every move, elevating its significance.

It was in this context that, on Friday at Sahalee Country Club, host of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, a sizable group of fans surrounded the green at the par-3 9th hole just after 1 p.m. local time, waiting eagerly. Dozens filled the grandstand behind the green and hundreds more lined the rope line from the green all the way back to the tee.

One player approached the tee and a young girl of about 12, peering through the trees, exclaimed That’s Lexi! That’s Lexi! and her friend said matter-of-factly that No, that’s Minjee Lee, who was still deemed exciting but their impatience was growing; Lexi was still a group away.

Yuka Saso led off the next group; her tee shot drifted just too far left and found the bunker. Then came a penetrating iron shot from Jin-Young Ko, the former World No. 1, which landed on the front-middle of the green and bounded forward, rolling out past pin-high and just hanging onto the back portion.

And then the third player teed it up and the friend said Okay THAT is Lexi and sure enough there was Lexi Thompson, mostly known mononymously, and as her shot flew towards the green it was clearly higher and farther than those of her playing partners, and based on the way Ko’s had landed, Lexi’s was certainly too far — except then it pitched no more than a yard from the hole and took one large bounce forward and then spun to a sudden halt about 12 feet away, delighting the crowd and reminding them what she can do better than almost anyone else in the field, namely launch high, spinning missiles that land softly even on firm greens.

And as Lexi came off the tee box the crowd alongside her somehow suddenly tripled; walking spectators filled the space between the rope line and the treeline, flowing like lava down the hill towards the green. The awaiting spectators oohed and squealed and as she got closer one yelled Let’s go Lexi and that kicked off a round of applause and the spectators eagerly joined in; they’d waited to see the golf but also the star and the show around her and now the star and the show had arrived.

What Lexi did on the 9th green — her final of the day — was thoroughly unremarkable; her birdie putt ran out of energy just short of the hole and she settled for 3. But what it represented was remarkable in that her second-round 72 paired with her opening-round 68 to get her to 4-under 140, good for T3 at the halfway point of a major championship.

What followed was remarkable, too: Lexi whipped out a Sharpie and started signing autographs right there in the walkway by the green. She did this before she’d even signed her scorecard or been to the locker room. She signed as quickly and efficiently as she could, she switched deftly from one side of the rope line to the other, she posed for selfies and she kept apologizing and saying she had to go sign her card but kept signing autographs anyway, struggling with the reality that no matter how many fans she greeted there’d inevitably be more left behind. And when eventually she broke free she realized just how long it had been since her final putt had dropped and then she took off in a run towards scoring, nearly a sprint, because she was needed there, too, to attest the scores of her playing partners and to answer questions from the assembled media about what it’s like to be here, doing this, given the fact that just two tournaments ago, Thompson had announced her retirement.

WHEN THOMPSON ANNOUNCED at the U.S. Women’s Open that this would be her final full-schedule season, she pulled back the curtain on the challenges that come with being Lexi.

“Since I was 12, as a golfer, my life has been a whirlwind of constant attention, scrutiny and pressure,” she said in a message. “The cameras are always on, capturing every swing and every moment on and off the golf course. Social media never sleeps, with comments and criticisms flooding in from around the world. It can be exhausting maintaining a smile on the outside while grappling with struggles on the inside.”

Seeing her in person was a reminder that it’s one thing to sign and pose and answer questions when you’re T3. But what about when you’ve missed the cut? What about when the fans have stuck around to watch you battle frustration, disappointment, injury, heartbreak? In tough times the crowds and the scrutiny and the expectation to be everything to everyone while remaining the face of the LPGA — seems from the outside like a weight too mighty to shoulder.

Lexi’s fellow Puma athlete and fan favorite Rickie Fowler has been through his fair share of recent troughs and his buddy Jordan Spieth said something interesting about him a few years ago: “The most difficult thing about struggling is when you’ve had a lot of success it’s almost impossible to struggle in silence, in darkness, and get your work done in the dark,” Spieth said.

Nelly Korda implodes with career-worst score, drops 72 spots to miss cut at PGA
Plenty of pros can miss cuts with relative anonymity. Not the faces of the game, though. Not Nelly Korda, the World No. 1 who shot 81 on Friday and was emotional addressing the media post-round. And not Lexi.

But something funny happened after her retirement announcement. She didn’t play well that week; she missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open, her fourth MC in a row. But in her next start, last week’s Meijer LPGA Classic, Thompson played her way into a three-way tie at the end of 72 holes and lost in a playoff; the T2 was her best LPGA finish since 2022.

On Friday at Sahalee, as she ran from the fans to the scoring area to attest that she was in fact in the thick of contention on Friday at a major championship, she seemed to be floating. When the golf itself isn’t going well, attention and results can weigh a golfer down. But when the golf is going well? All that other stuff is energizing. It’s the best. It’s the entire point. So it was impossible to look at Thompson after another good round under pressure and wonder… are you sure?

THOMPSON DIDN’T SAY NO. After Thursday’s 68 she was asked if she might reconsider that whole retirement thing and she was somewhat cryptic in response.

“I figured I would be getting that question,” she said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I made my announcement. I’m very content with it. Golf is a crazy game, so I’m not going to look too far ahead. Just taking it one day at a time and see where it takes me.”

It was an appropriate response. It would be silly to reverse course just six rounds after an announcement that had undoubtedly been months and years in the making. At the same time it would be silly to shut any doors that she didn’t need to. Say Thompson pulled off a miracle win this weekend, earned exemptions into every major and was free to build her schedule however she wanted. Perhaps there could be a middle ground?

She hasn’t lost the fire nor the desire to work hard at her craft. Asked on Friday whether she’d seen this run of good form coming, she admitted she hadn’t — but not for lack of trying.

“I was hoping for it,” she said. After the U.S. Women’s Open, she got back to the grind. “I was out at the golf course in Florida summer for 5 to 7 hours a day just trying to figure out something that just clicked.”

She didn’t find a click, per se. But she found a sense of freedom as she headed to Michigan — freedom that turned into T2. She’s chasing that feeling again. “Really just trying to enjoy the moment more out on the golf course,” she said.

When things are going well it’s easy to assume they always have and always will. In reality the game has been tough on Thompson. Asked on Friday how long she’d been free of a wrist injury she laughed.

“I’ve battled with wrist injuries over multiple years now. Kind of flared up mid-last year and into this year, and then kind of went into my thumb. My whole hand would throb when hitting shots,” she said. “Now it’s been relieved — with some pretty good painkillers, I guess. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to say. But I’ve gotten treatment on it and good anti-inflammatories.”

IN GOLF, DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES ARE NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBORS.

Lexi has been a terrific player for a decade-plus; she owns 11 LPGA Tour wins plus a major. But she’s been heartbreakingly close to several more and large swaths of her career have been defined by devastating near-misses in majors. She owns a second and a third in this event but not a win. For that matter, she owns a second and third in four of the five majors plus two fourths, two fifths, three sevenths and an eighth. Taken together, the results tell a story of sustained excellence. Taken individually they include plenty of good play but also blown leads, rules controversies, missed putts, misery.

In recent years Lexi’s level has dropped; her missed cut at the U.S. Women’s Open was her sixth in seven major starts. There was some relief that accompanied her retirement announcement: At least she wouldn’t have to go through this again.

But here she is, in the thick of things, not just a fan favorite but a top contender. It’s a dangerous place to be, back in the arena. Bad things can happen. Things that hurt. Rory McIlroy displayed that at Sunday’s U.S. Open: glory and heartbreak are separated by a three-foot putt.

Still, getting yourself to that spot is the entire point. It’s just not for the faint of heart.

“Mindset going into the weekend is the same as the last two days,” she said. “Get some rest and come out, have a good warmup, and really embrace the crowd. It’s been beautiful weather. Course is in great shape. Just blessed to be out there.”

Just ask the fans, the broadcast, the tournament directors: the feeling is mutual. We don’t know how many more times we’ll have Lexi in contention at a major championship on the weekend.

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