Nicholas Thompson appreciates that various responsible adults are trying to temper the expectations for his kid sister, but he can't contain his bullishness. "How good can she be? That's simple: the best," he says. "People may be afraid to say it, but I'm not. I've known Lexi was a very special talent since she was six. You take all that natural ability and combine it with her size and the desire and work ethic she's developed, I think every record in the book is in jeopardy. How old was Annika when she won her first LPGA event? [25.] Lexi already has such a big head start, she is going to do amazing things in this game."
On a crystalline October morning, in a remote corner of Brooklyn, a dozen tattooed, black-clad, heavily pierced hipsters slouched around a swank photo studio, in the employ of The New York Times Magazine. At the center of the vast room Lexi sat passively as she was primped by three stylists, simultaneously. She was well into her second hour of hair and makeup. Judy was on a nearby couch, squinting into a smartphone and announcing Curtis's real-time scores from a college tournament in Louisiana. This was Lexi's first high-concept, high-fashion photo shoot, and she seemed shy and a little overwhelmed. When it was finally time to take the pictures, she walked haltingly onto an all-white set, slowed by a short skirt that had a dozen safety pins running up the back so it would fit even snugger. Thompson requested that the brooding music be switched to hip-hop. She knows the lyrics to pretty much every rap song of the last decade, and as Lil Wayne's raspy growl filled the room and the flashes started popping, this reticent 16-year-old was transformed. Thompson radiated confidence and glamour as she moved to the photographer's instructions: "Sway to the music.... Chin up, hip out, shake the hair.... Keep it moving.... Work your hips, girl.... Yes! So sweet!"
Judy scurried about in the background with a point-and-shoot camera, recording the scene so Lexi could post a few pictures on Facebook for her pals. When it was all over the Times photographer rendered a two-word verdict on his muse: "Star quality."
In the wake of her victory Thompson was making her second publicity trip to New York, and she was smoothly professional in interviews on the morning talk shows and with various glossy magazines. These short getaways mix brand building (not that Lexi would ever use that term) with a chance to be a squeaky-clean Carrie Bradshaw for a day or two. "This stuff is fun for her," says Kreusler. "It's every girl's dream to come to New York and star in a fancy photo shoot, right? When it stops being fun, we'll stop doing it."
Before he got into golf, Kreusler ran Wilhelmina Models. He's seen plenty of young women damaged by too much too soon, and his instinctive protectiveness dovetails with the down-to-earth sensibilities of Thompson, who says, "I enjoy all this extra stuff, but really I simply want to be a golfer."
Adds Kreusler, "For the last few years we've said no to 99 percent of things, by design. When you look at other prodigies—and by the way, I hate that word—the hype has tended to build much faster than their results warranted. That leads to more pressure and almost inevitably a backlash. With Lexi we wanted to let things build slowly, on their own. We want her career to be measured in decades. There's no rush."
No one around Thompson likes to hear the words Michelle Wie, but the comparisons are inescapable. When she was 16, Wie was either struggling to break 80 during much-ballyhooed PGA Tour cameos or suffering through high-profile rules infractions. Her parents were new to the sport and overwhelmed by the golf-industrial complex. They seemed to be making it up as they went, their daughter pinballing from tour to tour in ill-fated cash-grabs. Having raised Nicholas and Curtis in golf, the Thompsons have a clear plan for their daughter, and it always comes back to giving her a relatively low-stress environment to fulfill her awesome potential. To fill the gaps in her schedule, Lexi stays sharp by regularly playing one-day mini-tour events in Florida in which she is always the only female. (She has won one of these shootouts, lost two playoffs and, on one bitter occasion, finished third at a tournament that Nicholas won; by informal agreement, the Minor League Golf Tour doesn't publicize her appearances in advance.) Though it would create a huge buzz, the family is adamant that Lexi will never make a cameo on the PGA Tour. They know how good Nicholas is, and he's fighting to keep his job. There's no need to risk Lexi's confidence—and potentially subject her to ridicule—merely to generate a few headlines.
The Wies were geographically isolated living in Hawaii, but they also seemed to feel that the less Michelle played the more valuable she became as a commodity. As an amateur she rarely teed it up against kids her own age and thus never got in the habit of winning. She was an only child chasing technical precision alone on the range. Thompson has come of age as a golfer by constantly competing, either against her brothers, in smaller amateur events—she won the 2009 South Atlantic Amateur by 13 strokes—or in the big-time national championships. (She took the U.S. Junior in 2008, part of a two-year run during which she was simultaneously women's golf's No. 1--ranked junior and No. 1--ranked amateur.) "I believe competitiveness is not something you're born with," Lexi says. "You have to learn it."
Wie will graduate from Stanford next March and then, as a full-time pro for the first time, have the chance to live up to the expectations of a decade ago. It was a different kind of victory that she found happiness and contentment in Palo Alto, blossoming into an intellectually curious young woman with myriad artistic interests (SI, Dec. 7, 2009). There has been the inevitable hand-wringing that Thompson has no plans to attend college, but she's at peace with her decision. Last month she spent four days at UCLA visiting her best friend, Kyle Roig, a freshman on the powerhouse women's golf team. They stole away to an amusement park and did a little shopping—Lexi bought a dress that could be handy in the event of, say, a big high school dance—but Thompson's time shadowing a busy student-athlete reinforced her belief that "college isn't for me." She dozed off during an astronomy lecture, and when she joined the Bruins for practice at Bel-Air Country Club, she was reprimanded by the club's stuffed shirts for wearing a skirt that didn't go down to her knees. The thought of endless schoolwork and a heavily structured team environment leaves her cold. "I'd be miserable," Lexi says. "I like to do my own thing."
When Thompson's not at a tournament her routine rarely changes: After a big breakfast she gets to the golf course by nine and practices for two or three hours, pumping music through her iPod. After a big lunch she'll play 18 holes, unless she plays 36. Then Thompson works out in the gym for up to two hours. After a big dinner she does her schoolwork. Next May she'll earn her high school diploma.