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Pitfalls of superstardom

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The first time I heard of Lexi Thompson was almost six years ago when I was working on a book about PGA Tour Qualifying School.

One of the young guns in the event that year was Nicholas Thompson, who had just graduated from Georgia Tech and had played on the Walker Cup team that summer. Thompson made Q-School look easy, breezing through all three stages to get his card at the age of 22. When I talked to him about his background he told me he was certain he wasn’t the best player in his family.

“My younger brother is a good player, too,” he said. “But my little sister – she’s the one to watch.”

Lexi Thompson was 10 back then. Her brother has yet to find stardom on the PGA Tour but he has certainly proven to be a good judge of talent. His little sister – who is now almost 6-feet tall at the age of 16 – was the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open at the age of 12; turned pro at 15 and just became the youngest player in history to win on either the LPGA or the PGA Tour when she won the Navistar Classic by five shots.

Women’s golf, it appears, may finally have the American star it has been searching for the past several years.

But let’s slow down for just a second.

There is no doubt Lexi Thompson can play. She had contended in other tournaments before her victory and she should continue to improve with experience. While it is certainly admirable of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan to want to make it difficult for teenagers to become full-time tour players, Thompson’s victory is going to make it nearly impossible for him to stop her.

The tour currently has a rule that states anyone under 18 cannot become a member. Whan had agreed earlier this year to make an exception for Thompson and allow her to go to Q-School. She breezed through the first stage. Now though, with her victory, her agent is going to petition Whan to grant her membership either right now or at the beginning of 2012. Whan will have to at least grant the latter request: His sponsors will be screaming at him to do so; Thompson’s golf clearly merits membership and, by then, she will have turned 17, which should make him feel better about allowing the exception. Clearly, this is an exceptional player.

But there is a lot more to this story than whether Thompson is ready to play golf at the highest level. The larger issue is what comes with all that because it isn’t as simple as it looks.

Michelle Wie was good enough to contend in major championships when she was Thompson’s age – and younger. Before she turned 17, she had six top-5 finishes in majors. Like a lot of prodigies, she wasn’t ready for the pressures heaped on her when she signed lucrative endorsement contracts after turning pro and put herself into a harsh spotlight by continuing to play in men’s tournaments before winning against women.

It doesn’t appear likely that Thompson or her parents will make the same kinds of mistakes that Wie made when she was a teenage superstar. But there are still plenty of pitfalls. The fact that a PR agency was emailing TV stations around the country on Monday offering Lexi Thompson interviews and pointing out that Thompson is a Red Bull athlete is not an encouraging sign.

Lexi Thompson doesn’t need to endorse Red Bull or any other non-golf product right now. She certainly doesn’t need to spend time in a TV studio banging out one interview after another while representing a sponsor. Given her talent, her age and her looks, she will make plenty from an equipment deal and a clothing deal. If her golf goes where it should go she is going to make all the money she ever needs by the time she’s 21.

This is where the trouble begins. The prodigy is going to have to deal with plenty of pressure: continuing to improve their game; being the subject of inevitable jealousy in the locker room; handling all sort of media demands; the pressure to cash in big right now when there is no guarantee of superstardom in five years from now.

It is worth noting that, for all the mistakes made in the handling of Tiger Woods, one thing his father and IMG did was let him go to college for two years before he turned pro. That meant he was 21 by the time he spent his first full year on tour and, although he didn’t handle some off-course responsibilities well, he certainly handled playing golf well.

Wie, on the other hand, turned pro in high school (like Thompson, who is home-schooled) and struggled on and off the golf course within a couple of years. The smartest thing she ever did was enrolling at Stanford to bring some normalcy to her life.

Thompson is going to wear the “Next One” label that Wie once wore. She is going to be promoted as the young American who can challenge Yani Tseng at the top of women’s golf. She appears to have everything it takes to be the game’s next superstar.

Let’s hope she is allowed to walk into the spotlight, not run after it. There’s no rush. If there’s one thing Lexi Thompson has plenty of right now, it is time.