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Thompson returns to Masters five years after penalizing himself

Michael Thompson at the 2013 Honda Classic
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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.”