Older And Bolder, Lexi Thompson Is As Intriguing As Ever

Now 20, Lexi Thompson is ready to try a new approach in marketing, as was clear in this GolfPunk magazine photo shoot in September. Chris McEniry/Getty Image

The first image we have of Alexis Thompson is the one that endures. The bow securing her braided pony. The carefree smile of a typical 12-year-old in the unlikely position of U.S. Women's Open competitor.

In many ways, she is not unlike the youngest kid at a perpetual family reunion.

"Oh yeah, it's 'I remember you when you were this tall,' " she says with a laugh. "Or they'll talk about these sparkly visors I used to wear. I know some people still think of me as a 12-year-old."

She's 20 now, long since known as Lexi. And on top of her stack of youngest-ever records, Thompson added the biggie last year at age 19 with her first major, a title she will defend this week in Rancho Mirage, California, at the newly named ANA Inspiration.

But it is how far she has come since last March and where she is now, seemingly on the cusp of that coveted crossover from burgeoning LPGA star to mainstream endorser and celebrity, that both entices and confounds her.

As Thompson continues to assert her independence within the tight-knit and protective cocoon of family and advisers and make more of the decisions affecting her future, it is that delicate balancing act between being everyone's kid sister and being an adult, those close to her say, that may be the biggest challenge of all.

Stardom has always beckoned

It was in place all along, this plan for stardom. Driven not by a marketing strategy as much as by a precocious little girl who could hit a golf ball a mile by age 6, it became obvious early on that something very special was in the making.

By her teens, it also became evident the girl was a beauty, something that, like it or not, could certainly help drive a marketing campaign in a sport that needs as much exposure as it can get.

The year Lexi Thompson turned 15, Cobra Puma (Puma's golf division) was formed. Its president, Bob Philion, wasted little time in making the teenage phenom and newly turned pro both the first golfer he signed to an endorsement deal and the face of his company.

"At the end of the day, we thought she was a game-changer," Philion says. "We felt she could really transform women's golf with her power and aggressiveness, and it was ultimately the perfect fit for us in terms of having world-class performance mixed with style and swagger."

Marketing talk, to be sure, but when she was 18, the company re-signed Thompson, adding to her cache of sponsorship deals that now includes Red Bull, Rolex, EA Sports and Zurich Insurance, on top of her official career winnings that stand at $2,837,596.

After winning the then-Kraft Nabisco for her first major championship, the obvious question became "What's next?'' But in women's golf, even a major title is not necessarily a guarantee of worldwide or even national celebrity.

"To be honest, it was bad timing from a media perspective for Lexi when she won the Kraft because that was the first week of the Masters, and that dominates the coverage in golf, and it was also the Final Four," says Thompson's agent, Bobby Kreusler. "So from a sports perspective, a lot of other things drowned out her accomplishments."

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is not averse to seeing his players become stars. But the tour's stance when talking about the subject of promoting its golfers has generally been along the lines that it needs to sell the LPGA and not the players, that the women will sell themselves through their play.

Kreusler disagrees, and he did something about it.

"Lexi is a 5-11, blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American beauty who is even more beautiful in person," he says. "I don't think it's ever a bad thing to let the world know that these are amazing athletes, powerful, strong, athletic but also beautiful.

"I hate to use the word sex appeal, but in my opinion, if it's done in a healthy manner, I don't think it's in any way negative."

And so Thompson's team embarked on a new, grown-up marketing plan. There was the Puma commercial (her first), with a bikini-clad Thompson in a candlelit hot tub with Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt and also featuring soccer star Mario Balotelli and golfer Rickie Fowler, that she filmed last April in Milan.

And then there was the GolfPunk magazine photo shoot that again featured Thompson in swimwear and in glamorous poses in September.

"Definitely, I was a little nervous going in," Thompson says of the hot tub ad. "But I was very excited to get that experience and reach out to a different fan base. And when I see the commercial on national TV or in Puma stores, it's amazing.

"It's not the usual for golf."

Kreusler says he talked to Thompson and her parents, Judy and Scott, about the risk involved in doing an ad that Philion called "avant-garde," and warned there might be some negative reaction. But afterward he called it overwhelmingly positive, with Annika Sorenstam among those tweeting compliments.

"I do like showcasing Lexi, I really do," says Sorenstam. "I'm a big fan of Lexi's, I think she's good for the game, and to see her in a different light is good.''

Touching a broader market

Apparently the marketing plan is working. Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores, says Thompson's last (2014) score of 16 percent awareness among sports fans is relatively low, but that her 37 positive Q score is the highest of any golfer, male or female.

"It means that 37 percent of people exposed to her "really love her a lot," he says. "It means she has a really intense emotional connection she has developed among sports fans."

By comparison, Serena Williams, at age 33, has a 79 percent level of awareness but a Q score of 21, much less of a connection with her fans than Thompson has with hers. Stacy Lewis, ranked No. 3 in the LPGA world rankings, has 20 percent awareness and a 28 Q score. Tiger Woods is at 89 percent with a Q score of 22.

"[Thompson] has the same Q score as Peyton Manning, who's probably the most marketable athlete out there," Schafer says. "If she grows in her awareness and can grow in her Q score, then she is certainly demonstrating potential for significant impact.''

Sorenstam, a household name as much perhaps for playing a PGA event as her 10 majors and 72 LPGA victories, agreed and went one step further.

"I can absolutely see her [becoming a mainstream marketing star]. She has the look, she has the personality and just like anything, it takes the consistency. Year after year you have to perform. Not to say she's not, but she has to be No. 1."

Thompson's philosophy on breaking into the marketing mainstream is to be expected from someone on the tail end of the millennial generation. And with approximately 80,200 Twitter followers, she is no amateur.

"I think reaching out to other brands, TV talk shows, social media, Instagram, tweeting back and forth with your fans and other famous people to help out with followers is all part of it,'' she says. "But the first task is to win. Winning definitely helps."

When Thompson took a marine corporal and Purple Heart recipient to her high school prom in 2012 in an effort to promote her efforts with the Wounded Warriors program, the story line generated a billion media impressions, Kreusler says.

But so far, that has not translated to sports' financial stratosphere.

On the 2014 Forbes list of the world's highest-paid athletes, five golfers -- all men -- appear in the top 100, with Adam Scott the last at No. 95 with $17.7 million in total pay, $8.7 million in salary/winnings and $9 million in endorsements. Just three women are on the list -- Maria Sharapova, the now-retired Li Na and Serena Williams -- all tennis players.

Sharapova had $2.4 million in winnings in 2014, the lowest of the three, but $22 million in endorsements.

The last athlete in the top 100, soccer player Luis Suarez, earned $4 million in endorsements.

Thompson's team won't divulge her numbers. Judy Thompson, Lexi's mother, says her daughter always has chosen her own endorsements, even at age 15.

"She wanted Red Bull and Puma so badly," Judy says. "She wanted Red Bull on her head because it was a very young, vibrant, active company and Puma also was so young. She said, 'I can always be an older person later on, but now I want to be young and vibrant.' That was her mentality."

The GolfPunk magazine that featured Thompson was its biggest-selling issue and it led, Kreusler says, to an Elle magazine cover in Malaysia, a fashion path they are working very hard to continue.

Kreusler also drops a hint about a "media piece" that will be revealed in a month that will be "a continuation of her development."

The balancing act? "Getting people to understand her as a beautiful 20-year-old and not a 12-year-old, and at the same time trying not to force her to grow up too soon.''

Family comes first

Two weekends ago, Thompson went with her mother to watch her brother Nicholas, 12 years her senior and a golfer on the PGA Tour, play the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando.

"We went back for Sharpies so Lexi could sign autographs," Judy Thompson says. "And she wears all her golf clothes when she goes to watch. She doesn't go incognito. She's in bright pink."

The irony is that for the media, Thompson is one of the toughest gets in golf. Three months was not enough time to set up an interview in person for this story, and if Kreusler is ever looking for another career avenue after being Thompson's agent, he might want to consider the Secret Service.

Though the Thompsons could surely go with a major agency, they choose instead to stick with Kreusler's Blue Giraffe, a relatively cozy firm whose clientele consists mostly of golfers, Thompson the most successful.

Kreusler has known Thompson since she was 9, when he began representing Nick (he also handles middle brother Curtis, who is on the Web.com Tour).

"Bobby is family and Lexi is like Bobby's child," Judy says. "He's very protective. You have to break through Bobby to get to Lexi."

Beyond that layer is the tightest of all. Before Thompson turned pro, the family had a big dinner at their house with aunts, uncles and godparents all invited to give their input on whether the time was right. They decided yes, but insisted she still finish high school.

Judy says if her children had to choose between doing something with friends or family, they would choose family every time.

"I think because they are exposed to people who want to be your friends not necessarily because of who you are but what you do, they're very conscious of that," she says. "... [Lexi] is very cautious ... she's cautious with people she lets into her inner circle."

Thompson makes no apologies for enjoying time with her family and preferring that at least one parent often join her on the road, joking that if nothing else, they can legally rent a car -- she won't be able to until she's 25.

"I've tried traveling on my own, and it's tough,'' she says. "It gets lonely sometimes, and it's good to have someone who loves you and is always there after a good round or bad round. My family is always there for me."

So, too, is a South Florida community of friends and neighbors who have known her since she was a baby. Judy loves it that the weekend after Lexi captured the Kraft Nabisco title, she was in church with the family, accepting congrats from the pulpit. People will stop her in the grocery store to talk, the guy in the dairy department coming out to tell her he got her favorite yogurt in.

Judy has worked at the same dental practice as office manager for 37 years, where "the girls in the office" are Thompson's godparents.

They all remember the little girl. The one who at 12 was asked in an interview for her height and weight and replied, "A woman never reveals her weight."

Nick Thompson remembers Lexi, at 8 or 9, tapping in a putt to win a tournament and then walking over to her father and burying her head in his side.

"Every time I see it," he says, "I just giggle."

It's hard for him, Nick says, to think of his baby sister as a grown-up, even as she looks to buy her first house and makes more decisions on her own. Suggest to him that she is growing up, and he'll tell you how their father recently accompanied her to Thailand.

Suggest to him that she is still a child, however, and he will ruefully but proudly tell you that is hardly the case anymore.

"She's a 20-year-old kid, no doubt about it. But she's a 20-year-old kid with experiences unlike most."

Thompson says growing up with two older brothers has made her more mature.

"It helped me take the steps necessary to make big decisions at a young age, whether to do online schooling or turn professional at 15. All those were my decisions," she says.

"Obviously, I look to my family for their support and input on important things, but I would say I'm definitely making more and more decisions for myself as the years go on."

At the same time, she rattles off some of her favorite things to do when she's off the golf course -- bowling, playing pingpong, riding go-karts, going to the beach and listening to music -- as a reminder that she's not quite ready for AARP membership.

"I feel a lot more mature than my age, I always have," she says. "But I'm still a kid."

More demands on her time

Winning her first major, as it turns out, wasn't the hardest part.

There was the fun of making the commercials and posing for photo shoots, but as Kreusler says with a laugh, "With great power comes great responsibility," quoting both Voltaire and Uncle Ben from "Spider-Man."

There were more demands on Thompson's time, higher expectations and, as a result, more stress on a still-19-year-old (until Feb. 10) who has not won another tournament since the Kraft Nabisco a year ago.

She's currently ranked 11th in the world after reaching a career high of No. 5 for eight weeks during two periods in 2014.

"I saw a lot of pressure on her last year," says her occasional swing coach, Jim McLean. "She has so many people pulling at her. ... She wasn't playing that well late in the year, she had gone through a couple caddies and it's tough enough just to be a 19-, 20-year-old girl and going through that time when young adults start to move away and break out on their own. It's not easy on anybody."

Kreusler says they have "almost hit the saturation point with media, sponsors, practice, workouts, prep time, travel that Lexi can do and still have a meaningful life. And that's what we all strive for. I've known Lexi since she was nine and we've always closely guarded her well-being."

To that end, the Thompsons have added a new member of their team in performance coach John Denney, who says he works with a number of athletes in various individual and team sports, bringing a "physiological, metaphysical and holistic approach" to his clients and getting what he says are immediate results.

Thompson is now taking more time for herself. She has a new boyfriend whom Judy says "has his own life beyond hers, which is good. Smothering does not work with her."

Thompson admits it's a difficult task to blend her golf game with the other demands but says it is getting easier.

She skipped the Founders Cup tournament two weeks ago because there wasn't enough time after returning from Asia and other commitments to prepare. Instead, she fit in a Panthers hockey game as well as her trip to Orlando to see Nick play.

"She knows when she has to take off, people say, 'You're going to lose your fan base,' but she says, 'I'm not going to lose my fan base because of one tournament,' " Judy says. "After every round of golf, Lexi will not leave the grounds until she has taken every picture and signed every autograph."

Clearly, among all the demands, it's a priority.

"Sometimes, it just gets mentally tough," Thompson says. "But at the end of the day, I'm playing golf for a living. And reaching out to a huge fan base and knowing people are following my progress and looking up to me means the world to me. So if all I have to do is some photo shoots and answer questions, that's nothing to me. That's part of my life."

A 'ridiculous' talent

As for her game, there seem to be no worries at all for a player who is currently ranked third in average driving distance at 266.5 yards but was at 275 last year after the Kraft and who golfer Stacy Lewis has called "hands down" the best ball striker in the game.

"It's just ridiculous the talent she has," says tour pro and pal Amelia Lewis. "It's not even fair, honestly."

Nick Thompson, who used to brag to his college friends to watch out for his then-6-year-old baby sister, is predicting more great things.

"I don't think it's going to be too long until she really breaks out and starts playing really well," he says. "She's playing nicely, she won a major and four LPGA events and all that, but I'm talking really, really well."

Superstar level?

"And more," he says. "I'm around the highest level of competition in golf day in and day out and I can see the talent when it's there. It's not just her brother speaking as people might think is the case. It's not.

"Everything might not be showing but she is getting better, she is improving. Now, she just has to get it all together."

Ask Thompson what has to improve for her to compete for the No. 1 spot and she says her short game. McLean says a golfer has to have a short game, long game, management game and mental game.

"To be a superstar," he says, "you have to do all four. But Lexi should be proud of what she has done. She was the No. 1 junior and amateur in the U.S. at 14, the youngest in the U.S. to win a tour event at 16, which is incredible. She has made every U.S. Open since she was 12, and won the U.S. Juniors at 13. Everybody's got to calm down a little bit and just let her mature."