Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Spirit Personified

Lexi Thompson, 16, won three gold medals at the
2009 Spirit International. In September, she became
the youngest player to win on the LPGA Tour.
TRINITY—Sixteen-year-old Alexis “Lexi” Thompson is the fastest rising star in women’s professional golf. She stands six feet tall and hits the golf ball 280 yards off the tee. In September, she became the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history when she won the Navistar LPGA Classic by five shots.

No player on the planet has “Caught The Spirit” more than Lexi Thompson, winner of three gold medals as a 14-year-old at the 2009 Spirit International. Thompson was back again this year, delivering the past champion’s speech at the opening ceremonies and playing a practice round with the U.S. Team on Tuesday.

The first round of the 2011 Spirit International begins Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m. with 80 of the world’s best amateurs playing as two-man, two-woman teams for 20 different countries. (Tee times and live scoring available at www.golfstat.com.)

Over the next four days, 54 holes of Four Ball Stroke Play will determine gold, silver and bronze medal winners in five categories: International Team, Men’s Team, Women’s Team, Men’s Individual and Women’s Individual.

Thompson made the rare clean sweep in 2009, taking the gold in the International Team, Women’s Team and Women’s Individual. Only Paula Creamer and Lorena Ochoa have accomplished the feat. Thompson said her three gold medals hang in her parents’ dining room next to the 150-plus trophies she’s amassed since winning her first U.S. Kids World Championship at age 7.

The Spirit began in 2001, and in the past decade it has become known for showcasing tomorrow’s professional golf stars in the amateur setting. Major champions such as Creamer, Ochoa, Yani Tseng, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel all participated in The Spirit as amateurs.

“On and off the course, The Spirit is the best experience,” Thompson said. “We have fun no matter what we’re doing. Team events are always so relaxing, and you really get to know the other players so well. Every minute of it is a great time.”

The players stay adjacent to Whispering Pines Golf Club in Camp Olympia, which transforms into the International Village during The Spirit. There’s a common dining hall where all the competitors eat, and players sleep 12 or more to a room in a true camp setting.

Lexi Thompson enjoyed a practice round at
Whispering Pines with the U.S. Team on Tuesday.
“The whole experience brings all the teams so close together,” Thompson said. “Sharing a cabin with about 20 other players and hanging out with all the teams for a few hours every night was such a bonding experience. I loved it.”
In 2007, Thompson made history by becoming the youngest player to qualify for the Women’s U.S. Open. She was 12. Two years later she was dominating at Whispering Pines with 17 birdies and posting a winning 24-under par score with teammate Jennifer Johnson. Thompson turned professional the next year as a 15-year-old.

“This tournament (in 2009) was a big step for me,” she said. “Being invited here was a big honor. I had heard so much about it. I had just come from the Junior Ryder Cup, and that was the only other time I had played on a team for my country. This tournament has the best amateurs in the world.”

With a field comprised of 75 national champions and No. 1-ranked players from 20 countries, it is highly likely that the next Lexi Thompson or Martin Kaymer are playing at Whispering Pines this week. Thompson said she sees budding star power in the two U.S. women, LSU sophomore Austin Ernst and Arkansas sophomore Emily Tubert.

“Austin and Emily are amazing players. I’ve played junior golf with both of them,” Thompson said. “They both have really consistent games. Emily hits it a mile—she hits it farther than me. They both have great advantages in their games. If they keep working hard, they’ll be out there. They’ll be on tour.”

Thompson turns 17 in February. She is fully
exempt on the LPGA Tour for next season.
Thompson planned to stay at Whispering Pines long enough to watch the U.S. Team play in the first round. The U.S. women tee off at 8:30 a.m. with the Swedish team of Daniela Holmqvist and Madelence Sagstrom, who plays at LSU with Ernst. The U.S. men follow in the 8:42 a.m. group with Swedes Robert Karlsson and Victory Tarnstorm.

Former U.S. Team captain and 2011 assistant captain Alli Jarrett texted Thompson about 10 days before The Spirit to ask if she wanted to return to give the past champion’s speech. Thompson jumped at the opportunity. Like every golfer who has passed through the front gates, Thompson absolutely loves Whispering Pines. She said taking the bus ride back down Olympia Drive to the clubhouse brought back a flood of memories.

“I was really happy to come back,” she said. “This place holds great memories. The last day at the award ceremony, it was the best experience. Receiving the gold medal and knowing I represented my country well meant so much to me.”


NOTE: For live scoring of The Spirit, visit www.golfstat.com. The 2011 Spirit International will feature a live webcast of the competition on holes 14-18 at www.thespiritgolf.com/live-webcast.html.  Follow the action on Twitter @thespiritgolf and use the official hashtag of #thespirit11. You can “like” The Spirit on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thespiritgolf.

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