Thompson returns to Masters five years after penalizing himself

By Jason SobelApril 9, 2013, 1:40 pm

The ball rests on the 15th green at Augusta National Golf Club, an uneasy rest if there ever was one. It isn’t that windy on Friday afternoon of the 2008 Masters Tournament, about a one-club breeze, but with the ball precariously perched on a downslope after having been carefully placed there by its owner, it begins to oscillate. With 10, maybe 12 feet separating it from a much-needed birdie, this is no time to be dancing a little jig.

Putter in hand, the player approaches the ball, sees that oscillation and freezes. It’s akin to a red traffic light for a driver. When the ball is quivering like that, you don’t slow down. You stop. Immediately. Not until he is sure that the ball is done oscillating does he step in and begin his usual putting routine.

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But it happens again. The ball moves, ever so slightly, and the player backs away again. He’s been in this position before and knows the punishment. It was back in a junior golf tournament when he first placed his putter on the ground behind the ball, then noticed it move. He had to call a penalty on himself for no reason other than poor timing and worse luck.

With that thought, he again watches the ball come to rest and again begins his routine. He’s extra careful this time. A penalty in a junior tournament is a valuable lesson; a penalty in the game’s most exalted major championship is a mistake that is never forgotten.

He places his putter behind the ball, its Titleist logo pointing in the direction he is aiming to hit the putt. He sneaks one final look at the hole, then looks down again. The Titleist logo has moved. Maybe a quarter-inch. Maybe less. No one else sees it. Not the nearby television cameras nor the thousands of anxious fans nor his two playing partners. He does, though. And he understands that he has to make a decision.

If you know him, though, you know that it isn’t a decision at all. And as Michael Thompson returns to Augusta National this week as a Masters competitor for the first time since 2008, he unhesitatingly says “I’d do it the same way.”

IF COMPETING in the Masters just before his 23rd birthday was a dream come true, then finding himself on the precipice of the cut line was his pinch-me moment, an affirmation that the dream was indeed reality.

Eight months earlier, Michael arrived at The Olympic Club like so many other young hopefuls, allowing himself to think about winning the prestigious U.S. Amateur Championship. Playing some inspired golf, he rolled into the match-play portion of the tournament, even beating Webb Simpson, who would go on to win the U.S. Open on that very site not many years later.

When Michael won his semifinal match against Casey Clendenon, he hugged his parents and cried, “We’re going to Augusta!” Though he lost the next day to Colt Knost in the final, that Masters invitation remains as perhaps the sweetest consolation prize in sports. It was even sweeter for a kid who’d always dreamed of the opportunity.

“I grew up telling everyone I played golf with, if we were practicing 8-footers, that mine was to win the Masters,” he explains with a smile. “To have that come true was just so exciting.”

There haven’t been many players, before or since, who took as much advantage of the invitation. During the second semester of his senior year at the University of Alabama, he made five road trips – pilgrimages, if you will – to Augusta National, playing two or three rounds each time and “loving every minute of it.” He still remembers the first birdie he ever made there, a 3-wood approach into a two-club wind on the 11th hole that culminated in a curling 25-foot putt that touched down in the bottom of the cup.

2013 Masters practice round

Click on the photo for a gallery of pictures from Augusta National

Those frequent visits didn’t mean he was any more prepared once tournament week started. Michael had never before competed in a professional event, let alone a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, let alone a major championship. And now here he was, alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as a Masters competitor.

His nerves hit an all-time high on Wednesday, one day before the tournament even started. Competing in the venerable Par-3 Contest, he found himself hitting that first wedge shot with a trio of legends named Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player watching nearby. His hands trembling, he somehow caught enough of the ball to find the fat part of the green and not embarrass himself in front of that conglomeration of 13 green jackets.

While his family – parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and anyone else who could make the trip – stayed in a big house in Augusta during the week, Michael took his traditional place in the famed Crow’s Nest with the other amateur competitors.

Now, there are some hard-and-fast rules about staying in the Crow’s Nest, which have been met by varying degrees of acceptance over the years. Players have been known to explore the bowels of the mammoth clubhouse, sneaking through all the nooks and crannies of the adult playground. More than a few have practiced their night putting on the space adjacent to the first tee and final green. And those are only the stories they’re willing to share. We can only imagine those which remain unspoken.

Michael left nothing to the imagination. He dressed neatly in a coat and tie for invited dinners, referred to everyone he met as “sir” or “ma’am” and when it came time to retire to his quarters each night, he simply turned off the light, went to sleep and dreamed of what the next day would bring on the course.

“I’m a rule-follower, especially at that place,” he says. “You just don’t want to break any rules.”

That sentiment is a common theme throughout Michael’s life. While most PGA Tour professionals spent their formative years trying to dig secrets out of the dirt, he was a member of the Boy Scouts of America, ascending to the position of Eagle Scout. When he was 14 and weighing about 120 pounds soaking wet, he embarked on an 80-mile backpacking trip over 11 days, lugging a pack that weighed nearly half of what he did.

He still credits life as a Scout for helping prepare him for other situations. One of those occurred in August 2005. While practicing for his upcoming season at Tulane University in New Orleans, Michael heard about a major hurricane that was on its way. They were calling it Katrina. Instead of panicking or stalling, he used those lessons learned as a Scout to pack up a few sets of clothes, grab a buddy, get in the car and start driving as far away as possible. Rather than get stuck in the city’s devastation, they actually turned it into a vacation of sorts, stopping along the way to play a little golf.

Loyal almost to a fault, Michael stayed at Tulane and with the school’s golf program for as long as he could – until the team was told that it would need to disband. He transferred to the University of Alabama, just another speed bump in his life that seemed less bumpy because of a childhood spent preparing for the unexpected.

Even today, he credits those lessons learned for his resiliency as a professional golfer. Perhaps it explains how last year, with some of the game’s greatest players wilting under the final-round pressure of the U.S. Open, Michael battled his way to a second-place result, earning a return invitation to the Masters on the very course where he first hugged his parents after receiving one five years earlier. And maybe it explains how two weeks after finishing last among the 138 competitors who completed two rounds at the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, he bounced back to win his first career PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic.

More than anything, though, the lessons explain how a kid one week shy of his 23rd birthday, playing in the tournament he’s always dreamed about, on the verge of making the cut to ensure two more rounds, notices the logo on his ball moves maybe a quarter-inch and knows exactly what he needs to do.

THERE ISN'T even a decision to be made. Michael sees the Titleist logo askew on his ball, steps away and announces to his playing partners that he has to call a penalty on himself. It’s a rule that has since been altered by the USGA, an acknowledgment that it wasn’t fair if an outside agency moved the ball, even after the putter had made contact with the surface of the green.

One of those playing partners, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, tries to talk him out of the ruling. He’s been rooting for the amateur throughout the day and now, with a potential spot in the weekend rounds on the line, he doesn’t want to see the young man lose that opportunity. Michael knows it is the right thing, though. Instead of putting for birdie, he winds up making bogey on that hole, then follows with bogeys on the next two, as well. A second-round score of 78 leaves him four strokes shy of making the cut.

Afterward, he maintains he is disappointed, but not devastated. Mostly about the two bogeys that followed. Not for the ruling. He doesn't second-guess that and never has.

“I think that’s one of the things that I love about golf, that there is a defined set of rules and it’s a gentleman’s game,” he says. “It’s based on honor and I think what sets golf apart from every other sport is that you hold yourself to higher standards than anybody else does.”

Apparently, Michael isn’t the only one who thinks this way. It isn’t long before he starts receiving letters in the mail about his admirable decision. From the University of Alabama president and its athletic director. From church pastors and teachers. From professors who used his situation as a positive example in classroom discussions about business ethics.

And then there is the bridge. Boys' and girls' teams from Holy Spirit Catholic High in Tuscaloosa, Ala., are in the process of constructing a 35-foot bridge at the time, connecting tee boxes on the 14th hole at Ol’ Colony Golf Course. Upon completion, they name it “Michael H. Thompson Bridge,” not because he had been the SEC champion, nor because he had a PGA Tour future ahead of him. Because of what happened at Augusta.

As Michael prepares to compete in the Masters for the second time, exactly five years later, he reflects on that scenario. He was never devastated, but the disappointment long ago faded, too. It is the byproduct of so many others acknowledging his honesty and paying tribute to a decision that for him was never decisive.

“That penalty was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I got a lot of good press from it. It helped solidify my reputation. I like to keep my word, be honest about what I do. I just think it created more good for me than anything.”

Spieth, Thomas headline winter break trip to Cabo

By Grill Room TeamDecember 15, 2017, 1:05 am

Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Really good at golf. Really good at vacationing.

With #SB2K18 still months away, Thomas and Spieth headlined a vacation to Cabo San Lucas, and this will shock you but it looks like they had a great time.

Spring break veteran Smylie Kaufman joined the party, as did Thomas' roommate, Tom Lovelady, who continued his shirtless trend.

The gang played all the hits, including shoeless golf in baketball jerseys and late nights with Casamigos tequila.

Image via tom.lovelady on Instagram.

In conclusion, it's still good to be these guys.

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Awards season: Handing out the 2017 Rexys

By Rex HoggardDecember 14, 2017, 7:00 pm

After careful consideration and an exhaustive review of 2017 we present The Rexys, a wildly incomplete and arbitrary line up following one of the most eventful years in golf.

 There will be omissions – just keep your calls, concerns and even e-mails to yourself. We appreciate your patronage, but not your feedback.

It’s Not You, It’s Me Award. You know the deal: You can’t be a part of two until you’re a better one; but on this front it’s really just a desire to find a better two.

It was a tough year for caddies, and not just any caddies. In June, Phil Mickelson split with longtime bagman Jim “Bones” Mackay. Both player and caddie cited the need for “change,” but the move reverberated throughout the game.

“The fairytale is over,” mused one caddie when told of the high-profile split.

In the wake of the Lefty/Bones break, Rory McIlroy split with his caddie J.P Fitzgerald, and Jason Day replaced looper/swing coach Colin Swatton on his bag. It all proves yet again that there are only two kinds of caddies, those who have been fired and those who are about to be fired.

Run for the Rose Cup. Sergio Garcia got the green jacket, a lifetime exemption to the game’s most coveted member-member and a long-awaited major, but Justin Rose took home the slightly less prestigious “Rose Cup.”

Following a frenzied afternoon at Augusta National in April, Rose lost to Garcia on the first playoff hole, but he won so much more with his honesty and class.

“You're going to win majors and you're going to lose majors, but you've got to be willing to lose them,” Rose figured following the final round. “You've got to put yourself out there. You've got to hit the top of the leaderboard. There's a lot of pressure out there and if you're not willing to enjoy it, then you're not ready to win these tournaments. I loved it out there.”

Few have made losing look so dignified and fewer still are as easy to root for.

Half-Empty Cup. It was the perfect setting, with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the promise of the Tristate masses descending on this fall’s Presidents Cup.

If only all those rowdy New Yorkers had something to cheer.

For the sixth time in the last seven matches, the U.S. team rolled to a victory of at least three points. This particular edition was even in danger of ending on Saturday afternoon thanks to a particularly dominant performance by a young American squad led by Steve Stricker.

Officials spoke of the purity of the competition and the attention the ’17 cup generated, but however you spin the 19-11 rout, this cup is half empty.

Enigma Award. The actual hardware is simply an oversized question mark and was sent directly to Tiger Woods’ South Florida compound following the most curious of seasons.

While it’s become customary in recent years to consider the uncertain path that awaits the 14-time major winner, this most recent calendar brought an entirely new collection of questions following fusion surgery on his lower back in April, his arrest for DUI on Memorial Day and, finally, a glimmer of hope born from his tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge earlier this month.

When will he play again? Can he compete against the current generation of world-beaters? Can his body withstand the rigors of a full PGA Tour schedule? Should Jim Furyk make him a captain’s pick now or wait to see if he should be driving a vice captain’s golf cart instead?

Little is certain when it comes to Woods, and the over-sized question mark goes to ... the guy in red and black.

After Further Review Chalice. In April, Lexi Thompson endured a heartbreaking loss at the ANA Inspiration, the byproduct of a surreal ruling that arrived a day late via a viewer e-mail and cost the would-be winner a major championship.

The entire event was so unsavory that the USGA and R&A made not one but two alterations to the rules and created a “working group” to avoid similar snafus in the future.

That working group – it turns out the U.S. Ryder Cup team has some sort of copyright on “task force” – initially issued a decision that introduced a “reasonable judgment” and a “naked eye” standard to video reviews, and last week the rule makers kept the changes coming.

The new protocols on video review will now include an official to monitor tournament broadcasts and ended the practice of allowing fans to call in, or in this case e-mail, possible infractions to officials. The USGA and R&A also eliminated the two-stroke penalty for players who sign incorrect scorecards when the player is unaware of the penalty.

While all this might be a step in the right direction, it does nothing to change Thompson’s fate. The AFR Chalice won’t change the harsh reality, but at least it will serve as a reminder of how she helped altered the rulemaking landscape.

Nothing Runs Like a Deere Award. Nothing gets fans fired up like officials turning fields of fescue rough into hay on the eve of a major championship, and the USGA’s decision to do some 11th-hour trimming at Erin Hills in June certainly caught many by surprise.

Officials said the nip/tuck on four holes was in reaction to a particularly foreboding forecast that never materialized, and the maintenance drew the ire of some players.

“We have 60 yards from left line to right line,” Rory McIlroy said. “You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here; if we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”

The record low scoring at the U.S. Open – winner Brooks Koepka finished with a 16-under total – didn’t help ease the fervor and had some questioning whether the softer side of the USGA has gone a bit too far?

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Podcast: Daly takes big pride in 'Little John'

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 14, 2017, 5:28 pm

John Daly is a two-time major champion, but the newest trophy in his household belongs to someone else.

That’s because Daly’s son, 14-year-old Little John “LJ” Daly, rallied to capture an IJGT junior golf event over the weekend. The younger Daly birdied the first extra hole to win a five-person playoff at Harbour Town Golf Links, site of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage.

Daly recently sat down for a Golf Channel podcast to describe what it’s like to cheer for his son and PNC Father-Son Challenge partner, share the unique challenge presented by the upcoming Diamond Resorts Invitational and reflect on some of the notable highs of a career that has now spanned more than 25 years.

Sneds starts slowly in Masters invite bid

By Will GrayDecember 14, 2017, 4:22 pm

Brandt Snedeker flew halfway around the world in search of a Masters invite, but after one round of the Indonesian Masters it appears he'll likely return home empty-handed.

Snedeker made only two birdies during his opening round in Indonesia, shooting an even-par 72 that left him in a tie for 77th and 10 shots behind leader Justin Rose. This is the final OWGR-rated event of 2017, and as a result it has drawn several notable entrants, including Snedeker, who hope to crack the top 50 in the world rankings by year's end to secure a trip to Augusta National.

Full-field scores from the Indonesian Masters

Snedeker started the year ranked No. 28, but after missing five months because of injury he entered the week ranked No. 51 and is projected to slip even further by the end of the month. As a result, he likely needs a top-3 finish in order to secure a return to the Masters, which he has missed only once since 2007.

World No. 55 Dylan Frittelli also struggled, shooting a 4-over 76 in the opening round, while No. 56 Kiradech Aphibarnrat is tied for 14th at 4 under. Yusaku Miyazato, currently 58th in the world, is tied for ninth and five shots behind Rose.

Should Snedeker and the other hopefuls fail to crack the top 50 by the end of the year, two paths to the Masters remain: win a full-point event on the PGA Tour in early 2018 or be inside the top 50 in the world rankings when the final cutoff is made on March 25.