Lexi Thompson set the stakes early in the week.
Where would it rank in terms of career accomplishments, a reporter wondered, if she were to make the cut in her PGA Tour debut?
“Definitely at the top,” Thompson said. “Definitely at the top of my accomplishments.”
It was a telling admission. Mostly, Thompson spent the lead-up to the Shriners Children’s Open managing expectations. She stressed how much fun she was having, how accepting this exemption allowed her to do something she’d always wanted to, how her focus was on bringing joy and inspiration to kids watching. But it was hard to look past this specific idea: Thompson already had it in her mind that this week could be the most meaningful of her career.
If great power comes with great opportunity, great opportunity comes with great pressure. But Thompson seemed up to the task in Thursday’s opening round; she stuck it close from the fairway bunker at No. 1, made par, hit the green at No. 2 and rolled in a 20-footer for birdie. Her tournament began on offense. It wasn’t all quite that smooth, but by the time her group had finished 16 holes and play was called for the day, she sat at one over par. Early Friday she came back out to finish off an opening round of two-over 73 (well below the Vegas over/under line set at 77.5).
That was well off the lead but was, by any other measure, a tremendous start. A month ago any of this would have been unthinkable; Thompson had spent much of 2023 mired in a slump, struggling through the worst season of her LPGA Tour career. She’d made just two of nine cuts on the LPGA all year. She didn’t have a top-30 result. She’d slipped outside the top 25 in the world.
But recent weeks showed signs of something special. Thompson posted a T19 at the Kroger Queen City Championship, an encouraging result ahead of the Solheim Cup. Then U.S. captain Stacy Lewis demonstrated her belief in Thompson by sending her off first in the opening foursomes match and last in the closing singles match. Thompson won both.
That entire Solheim week was emblematic of Thompson’s career; there was brilliant play (a 3-1-0 record), high-profile disappointment (a costly shanked chip in a tied match on No. 18) and controversy (Thompson shut down a media member’s question about that chip, sparking debate about an athlete’s responsibility to answer tough questions). But whatever she’d found in Spain she brought back to the LPGA event in Arkansas the following week, where she finished T8, and to Texas the week after that, where she finished T5. And it was that version of Thompson that showed up on Friday in Las Vegas, eager to push her chips in for the second round.
Bogeying her first hole (the 10th) seemed like it would all but eliminate her chances at playing the weekend; Thompson was now three over par and the cut was likely to hit at least two under. But she bounced right back, sticking her 152-yard approach at No. 11 to four feet. She showed off her length at the par-5 13th, pummeling a 314-yard tee shot and a 275-yard approach to set up an up-and-down for birdie. And she threaded the needle on the reachable par-4 15th, chasing driver onto the green and setting up a two-putt birdie.
She made the turn at two-under 34 and that’s when it really started to feel special; she canned a 24-footer for birdie at No. 1 and a 28-footer for another birdie at No. 2. Now she’d reeled off five birdies in 10 holes and played her way to two under — right on the cut line — with seven holes to play.
It was tough, some two hours later, to tell how Thompson really felt about how her round had finished.
“Very proud,” she told reporters afterward. “I played really well today. … As the day went on, I tried to stay committed to my targets out there and to my swing thoughts and just enjoyed the whole experience.”
I have no doubt that was true. But if there was something else that was true, too, some competing feeling of devastation, the sort of thing you’d feel when you’ve immersed yourself in a dream before you’re rudely yanked awake, Thompson didn’t vocalize it.
She’d made her worst swing of the day at the par-3 15th, shorting an iron shot that finished in the penalty area. But then she’d shown resilience, getting up and down from the 100-yard drop zone to limit the damage with a round-saving bogey. She’d made par at 6 and then just missed birdie at 7.
A massive crowd had gathered by this point, lining entire holes. Her playing partners were keenly aware of the situation; her finish had suddenly become appointment viewing. No female golfer had made a cut since 1945, after all. Not even Annika Sorenstam. Not even Michelle Wie West in her eight tries.
“I mean, we were rooting for her the last few holes to maybe make a birdie or two to make the cut,” said Trevor Werbylo, who was playing well from the same group. “But it was fun. She was great, her game was great, and the crowd was awesome.”
Thompson was generally aware, too, though it’s not clear she had an exact number in mind.
“I knew once I had made a few birdies in a row that I would be somewhat close, but I knew the cut line would keep on going lower and lower with these guys, especially with not that much wind out there,” Thompson said. She stayed committed to the process, she said. She picked small targets. She hit most of ’em, too, including a flighted 2-iron into the 247-yard par-3 8th, which looked brilliant right up to the moment it ran through.
“But it’s a 2-iron, so I can’t really expect too much,” she said.
When she shorted that chip and missed the putt she was back where she started, even par for the week, decidedly outside the cut line. When her birdie putt at No. 9 just wiggled wide it didn’t matter; Thompson’s week had been a terrific success. It had also come to a heartbreaking conclusion.
But there were only nods to that in her post-round interview. Thompson ticked off the highlights of the week:
“I mean, meeting some of the Shriners kids, ambassadors, was probably the highlight and just being with them, giving a clinic, giving golf lessons and just hopefully inspiring them to go after what they want. That was probably the most special,” she said. “And of course playing with the guys, amazing feeling, but growing up with guys, I’ve always wanted to be out on a PGA Tour event and tee it up.”
She was insightful, too, describing the differences of a PGA Tour setup with real clarity.
The biggest challenge, she said, was “probably just some of the pin locations. They tuck them very close to the edges to where you have to hit high shots and carry it and be able to stop it within two bunkers or a narrow part of the green. I would say that was the biggest part because I don’t get it as far down as the guys, so I have a little bit longer of a shot.”
Mostly she was all smiles. She called the support “energizing.” On the last hole, she said, she remembered what she plays for.
“A little kid screamed out, ‘Go Lexi, you’re great!’ and that just makes my day. No matter what I’m shooting, I could shoot 80, and they’d be like, you did great.”
She offered just one glimpse into the pressure she’d been under, just one sign that the smile was a shield.
“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m very tired.” Still, she added, she’d probably end up going to the gym later that afternoon. “It’s just a mental outlet for me.”
As she stepped away from the mic and out of the interview area her voice disappeared but others became audible instead, kids chanting, Lexi, Lexi, Lexi.
All week Thompson’s appearance had been cited as a chance to elevate the women’s game. This was good exposure for the LPGA. It was a chance to remind the world just how good their players are. Thompson did all of that and more; she beat a good portion of a field of PGA Tour players, from their same tees, in the same conditions — just with more scrutiny and more pressure. By Friday’s end? It was clear that it wasn’t Lexi Thompson that needed this PGA Tour event but the other way around.