Thompson's win a boon for young player's appeal

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

As Lexi Thompson made her to the 18th green in the final round of the LPGA Kingsmill Championship on Sunday evening, fans in the grandstands rose to their collective feet and applauded the best cumulative performance on the River Course since Annika Sorenstam's 2008 win. They joined the army of vocal fans that followed Thompson around the course all afternoon.

After Thompson hit the green, a calligrapher wasted no time penning her name on an oversized ceremonial winner's check for $195,000. Finishing a tourney record 20-under par, the Florida native would have had to six-putt to blow the lead that ended up five strokes better than Korea's In Gee Chun.

Tournament director Matthew Schulze wondered whether more buzz would have been generated for Thompson dominating, as she did, or for a more thrilling finish.

Either way, it was a script that tourney organizers would have been happy to write: The top-ranked American in the world, a growing superstar, claims her first Kingsmill championship less than two months after being denied the ANA Inspiration title due to an seldom-called penalty.

"Everybody really wanted her to be the champion," Schulze said. "I think community wide, that's what everybody was hoping for."

What makes Thompson so appealing?

She is only 22 but is already one of the most idolized LPGA players to grace the River Course.

Thompson is an avid supporter of the military; two of her three bucket list items in a pre-tournament LPGA media guide were skydiving and flying an F/A-18 fighter jet. She crossed the former off the list last Wednesday, parachuting into the Pro/Am as part of a new partnership with the Navy SEALs to raise money for families of wounded and fallen SEALs.

"You get a little bit of everything with Lexi," said Wayne Nooe, Kingsmill's vice president for golf. "You get the young kids, particularly the young girls. They just really look up to her. Then the older people like her because she is kind of like the girl next door. She is so friendly and approachable."

Not to mention a genuine super talent in the game with eight career wins (one major) and two Solheim Cup appearances in addition to representing the U.S. in the Rio Olympics last summer.

And younger stars like Thompson and Michelle Wie, who did not play this year at Kingsmill, have the benefit of boosting their appeal through social media. Each player has more than 250,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram. Wie debuted on tour four years before Thompson although Wie's first event was as a 12-year-old in 2002, when Thompson was 7.

With at least a win in each of the last four seasons, Thompson is most certainly trending up, on and off the course.

Six-time Solheim Cup veteran Angela Stanford of Fort Worth, Texas noted the difference in eras that help players like Thompson grow broader fan bases. Stanford, who turns 40 this year, finished third Sunday for her best-ever showing at Kingsmill.

"When I first started in the early 2000s, you didn't have Twitter or Instagram," Stanford said. "I just think there are some things that allow her to have that kind of status that Annika (Sorenstam) didn't have or even a (Karrie Webb)."

Both of the players Stanford mentioned won at Kingsmill. Sorenstam's victory will be remembered, aside from the spectacular performance, because the greatest women's golfer in history retired days later.

Suzann Pettersen's 2007 Kingsmill victory will go down for jumpstarting the Norwegian's stellar career, as she stormed from behind to force Kingsmill's first LPGA playoff. And with three wins, Cristie Kerr's legacy here has long been cemented.

Where might Thompson's win fit in?

For the short term, it backed up her status as one of the world's best golfers; she is ranked fourth behind New Zealand's Lydia Ko, Korea's So Yeon Ryu and Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn. It showed her resolve, after the disappointing major defeat in April.

A successful 2017 Kingsmill edition, in which attendance is expected to surpass numbers for the previous two years, could at least help ensure the tournament will return next year. It hasn't had a title sponsor since 2009.

"I hope after this week and the amount of fans and support that this tournament got, I hope somebody will pick this tournament up or continue to sponsor it," Thompson said. "It is one of the favorites for all players, not only myself. We hope to see it right back here next year."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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