Michael Thompson lived last week on the crookedest street in the world, which is entirely fitting given his profession. He arrives in Connecticut this week all too aware that no sport puts you on the crookedest street of emotions like golf.
Thompson surprised the sporting planet last Thursday by grabbing a three-shot, first-round lead in the U.S. Openat The Olympic Club. Hit a lot of fairways. Left himself in proper positions below the hole. Made a bunch of putts. When he was done, he looked down and saw 60 text messages about his 66 from family and friends. Looked up and saw the international media converging on him with 60 questions about how it felt to have Tiger Woods lurking over his shoulder.
"I had to learn how to deal with all the pressure and go out and play the next day," Thompson said Tuesday. "It was something new for me. Obviously I struggled with it, but the only way you're going to learn is by going through it."
That's the ultimate journey for Thompson and all the could-be champions. By going through the crookedest street of emotions, you hope and pray to come out the other end with your professional golfing head on straight.
Thompson stayed with the same family he stayed with during the 2007 U.S. Amateur on San Francisco's famously winding Lombard Street. He finished runner-up to Colt Knost. Thompson arrived in Frisco early for the U.S. Open, practiced with his coach, Susie Meyers, acclimated himself. Following his opening 66 with disappointing rounds of 75 and 74, he rebounded in terrific fashion with a final-round 67. If he hadn't pulled a 5-foot birdie putt on 17, man, Thompson would have been in a playoff with Webb Simpson on Monday.
"I was more relaxed Sunday because the pressure from the media and friends and family was kind of off me, I wasn't in the spotlight anymore," Thompson said. "On top of that, getting to play with David Toms, who's probably one of the calmest people out here, really helped me stay focused."
"It was just like an everyday Sunday round at a country club," Thompson said.
Thompson, 27, almost stole the U.S. Open, finishing in a second-place tie with Graeme McDowell. He pocketed $695,916 and 695,916 usable experiences for the future. You never know how each player will handle the burnout factor from the U.S. Open — the USGA scars even the best of them for a few weeks. There must be a quick transition from Open pars to Travelers birdies. Still, Simpson, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley — the past three major winners — tee off at 12:55 p.m. Thursday and that threesome probably is as good a place as any to find some favorites. Previous champs Fredrik Jacobson and Hunter Mahan, too.
Yet, if we told you a week ago Michael Thompson would have a good shot at the Travelers, chances are you'd say "Michael who?"
He took fourth at the 2011 Travelers, earning $288,000, the most he'd made at an event before Sunday. He loves TPC River Highlands, having played his first PGA Tour-sanctioned event there in 2008. He got a sponsor's exemption as an amateur, he called it a really nice olive branch from Travelers. Investing in the young golfers, of course, is the branch that brings players back year after year. Without a shred of expectations, he had an eagle at No. 10 in his first round, an eagle for an honest-to-goodness Eagle Scout. He finished 5-under. He calls it an incredible start to his career. And now, four years later, he is coming off the best week of his life and … Thompson sensed where this was headed. He could feel that crooked street of expectations being paved.
"The key to playing good professional golf is you can't think about what everybody else wants you to do or expects you to do," Thompson said. "I have trouble in terms of falling into that trap of trying to live up to the expectations that I believe others are putting on me.
"We as golfers put a lot of pressure on ourselves to begin with. We don't need all that extra pressure from the outside world. In a sense we almost need to distance ourselves and stay focused. Last week is over for me. The moment I showed up for the charter Monday morning I was already trying to get my mind ready for this week."
A champion has to learn to play with big expectations, no expectations, coming from behind, playing out in front. That's the next step for Thompson. There is a crooked street, a hurricane of emotions a golfer must endure, so it's probably also fitting that Thompson's career was forged by Katrina.
A member of the Tulane golf team, his car was in the shop when he fled with a teammate two days before Katrina in 2005. After 10 hours on the road in wall-to-wall traffic, they got an alum to set up a tee time in Lake Charles. The smiles soon ended. They watched the devastation on television. They played in the fall at SMU in Dallas and in December the team disbanded. Thompson transferred to Alabama.
"If it never happened and I stayed at Tulane, I wouldn't have developed as quickly as I did," Thompson said. "It allowed me to play a more aggressive, competitive style of golf against better players on better courses. Katrina was something I don't wish anybody to ever go through, but at the same time it worked out really well for me. In my case, it was a blessing in disguise."
So there he stood on the Pacific Coast Sunday after the two disappointing rounds. His friends said it would be nice if he finished off the Open the way he started. Thompson thought about past successes at the Olympic Club. He remembered beating Simpson, 5 and 4, in the 2007 Amateur. He knew the most pressure was on Jim Furyk and McDowell. Yes, he missed that birdie putt on 17, but that's not what he thought about those 90 minutes waiting for them to finish. He wasn't a wreck. He was a happy kind of freaked.
"I couldn't believe I shot 67 in the final round at the U.S Open," Thompson said. "I mean you can't dream of that kind of stuff."
He counted 23 friends and family members he could share the moment with, and then he counted how he secured his Tour card for 2013. He said it feels almost like he has a free ride, to enjoy himself more and really see what he can do.
"I got a really good dose of experience at the McGladrey Classic [he finished third last October] when I had a three-shot lead with nine to go," Thompson said. "On Sunday I felt like I handled myself a lot better than I did then. It was close but still not good enough. I have room to improve. In terms of overall confidence it showed me I can compete under a lot of stress. It was my third major and to finish second, if you told me that 10 years ago I wouldn't have believed you."
Now keep doing it.