Lexi Thompson set to make her PGA Tour debut — Must-click women’s golf links

The IX: Golf Thursday with Addie Parker, Oct. 5, 2023

Happy Golf Thursday! Hopefully by now we’ve all had time to recuperate from the whirlwind weeks of watching the Solheim and Ryder Cups. With just eight events left of the LPGA season, it’s time to adjust back to normal life and prepare for the final stretch.

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But nothing is ever really normal in golf anymore (what an exciting time for us enthusiasts), so that being said, earlier this week it was announced that 11-time LPGA Tour winner Lexi Thompson has received an unrestricted sponsor exemption into the Shriners Children’s Open next week. With this special exemption, Thompson will become the seventh woman to compete on the PGA Tour, after Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sörenstam, Suzey Whaley, Michelle Wie West, and Brittany Lincicome.

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The event will be played October 12-15 at TPC Summerlin, which last year played 7,255 yards with a par of 71. The field of 132 will compete for a purse of $8.4 million.

Naturally, this kind of news has stirred up a plethora of responses. Luckily, I’m on the happy side of Golf Twitter, and most of the reactions have been positive, but one comment from PGA Tour player Peter Malnati has sparked my interest.

Malnati has been on the tour since 2009 and recently was added to the PGA Tour policy board this year. He’s developed a bit of a reputation for speaking candidly and on Tuesday at a press conference for this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship, Malnati shared his thoughts on the news that Thompson was given an exemption into the Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas.

“I just got a text this morning, so I don’t know much about it,” Malnati said. “Obviously I know that Lexi at times has been one of the top players on the LPGA Tour, and she’s obviously very athletic. Distance won’t be a problem. She’ll hit it far enough. My gut reaction when I saw that was like the tournament reaching to try to get — just trying to drum up interest. I think I understand that, if that is the case.”

So far, nothing alarming with those statements…but things take a bit of a turn.

“I don’t think we’re going to need to resort to gimmicks to drum up interest. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t know that having Lexi play is a gimmick, but I don’t think the tournaments are going to have to go to those kind of lengths to drum up interest and get storylines that they can sell because I think these events are actually going to have a lot of meaning,” he said. 

Before dissecting what Malnati said, let’s understand what a sponsorship exemption is.

A sponsor exemption in golf is when the sponsor of a golf tournament invites a player/players into the event without them qualifying for the event. The sponsor exemptions are usually chosen by the tournament director and because companies and organizations spend a lot of money to have their names attached to a tournament title, a certain number of spots are reserved for those sponsors to invite players.

Who receives these exemptions? Typically, sponsors tend to invite popular local golfers to draw out the home crowd, former champions who may have failed to qualify, players who have contracts with the sponsor, top-ranked amateurs, or previous stars who still have a relatively big following.

Exemptions can get complicated and each sponsor and event are different, but ultimately their purpose is to drum up attention. Selling tickets, concessions, merchandise, or getting more traffic towards a website is really all these organizations want. This time of year for the PGA Tour is slow, the majors are over, playoffs were finished weeks ago, and the Ryder Cup is in the rearview mirror. The headline-grabbing golfers are on their “off-season” and these events are looking for someone to bring in the media attention—so in a way, Malnati is right, tournament directors are looking for clicks.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Lexi Thompson is a gimmick. She’s one of the best golfers in the world and her accolades speak for themselves—she’s earned her stripes. Sure, she’s had a less-than-ideal season, but she’s still a fan-favorite golfer, and rightfully so. Thompson’s finding her footing a bit after the Solheim Cup, with a T-8 finish last week at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

And if she is a gimmick, so what? The Shriners Children’s Open deserves the level of attention that Lexi Thompson has brought and will continue to bring. According to the tournament site, the kid patients of Shriners will be at the tournament and able to meet the players and walk inside the ropes as standard bearers. They will be able to interact with other patrons and share their stories and experiences.

It’s a bit of a win-win situation in my eyes, the sponsor gets more attention benefiting their cause, men’s golf weary fall season gets a bit of a boost, and on top of everything, women’s golf gets highlighted. And I think Thompson agrees, “I’m hopeful that my ability to play with the men next week at the Shriners Children’s Open sends a great message to the young women that you can chase your dream regardless of how hard it is. I cannot wait to come to the city of Las Vegas and I’m grateful to Shriners Children’s for this opportunity to spend the week alongside these inspirational kids.”

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Five at The IX: Lexi Thompson’s presser from The Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America

Q. All right, here with Lexi Thompson. When did you first learn of the opportunity to compete at Shriners?

LEXI THOMPSON: So I just learned actually Sunday after my round at Walmart. Just kind of a little blindsided, but obviously very honored just to have the thought that they wanted me to be there.

It’s just a very cool opportunity for me to of course play alongside the men. That’s one thing. But to leave more of a message to the little girls and boys that no dream is too big. If you put your mind too it, you can accomplish anything.

It’s just a very — I’m very honored just to have this opportunity.

Q. What went into the decision to play? I know you’ve been on the road for a couple weeks. What went into that decision?

LEXI THOMPSON: There was a few things. Like I had something planned for next week — next weekend. I had to change that. But this is kind of a once-in-a-career opportunity, so it was like, I have to do this.

And the fact that there is kids, I love kids, and that I’ll be leaving more of an impact on the children out there, that’s the bigger thing.

Golf is one thing. If I can leave the game and the world in a better spot and inspire others, that’s what I want.

Q. How long has it maybe been a dream of yours to compete on the PGA TOUR? Has it ever been a dream of yours?

LEXI THOMPSON: I mean, growing up with two older brothers and around their friends I’ve always grown up playing alongside the guys I guess.

Can’t say it’s been like a dream of mine to play on the PGA TOUR. Of course I’ve wanted to. I learned so much playing alongside the guys and am very inspired by them, so it’ll be a great opportunity for me.

Can’t say I go day to day wanting to do it, but I’m very honored for this.

Q. What are some of your goals or expectations for the week?

LEXI THOMPSON: Going into the week I’m just going to embrace it all. Like I said, leaving a bigger impact and interacting with those kids, that’s my number one.

Of course I want to play good golf. I know my game and how I’m playing right now and how much work I’ve been putting in, so playing within myself and my game is all I can do. Not try to force anything on a longer golf course.

I’ve never played there, so will be my first time. Get a few practice rounds in and probably be hitting driver a lot, which is nice. (Laughter.)

Q. Obviously you’re not the first player to do this, but did you watch any of the other players Annika, Brittany, Michelle, when they competed on the PGA TOUR?

LEXI THOMPSON: I probably watched a few highlights. Can’t say I really tuned in to watch it.

I was inspired when they did it, going after what you want, leaving a bigger message out there that if you have a goal in mind, whether it’s golf, anything in life, if you put your mind to it and have a positive attitude and work towards what you want, anything is possible.

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Written by Addie Parker