Paul: Could Lexi Thompson ever tee it up in the Rocket Mortgage Classic?

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — There were six people on the dais, front and center on the sun-splashed patio at Detroit Golf Club on Monday morning. Of those, five had a direct stake in the success and future of the just-extended Rocket Mortgage Classic — players Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, Rocket Mortgage CEO Jay Farner and tournament director Jason Langwell.

Then there was LPGA Tour star Lexi Thompson, in town in her role as one of Rocket Mortgage's brand ambassadors. She played in the celebrity scramble and pro-am ahead of the 2021 tournament, too.

She's actually quite used to playing golf in Michigan, which hosts LPGA Tour tournaments in suburban Grand Rapids and Midland. But she's just now starting to get used to being in Detroit, having signed with Rocket Mortgage late in the spring. Detroit, though, doesn't have an LPGA Tour stop. So her work here figures to mostly be ceremonial. Or, maybe not.

Could Rocket Mortgage ambassador Lexi Thompson be the next woman to play on the PGA Tour?

"Maybe," she said the other day with a slight grin, "I'll play in it one year.

"Who knows?"

Now, that might've been a throwaway line, with little meaning behind it. But it piqued my interest, and we would've followed up had the PR folks not been calling the clock on our availability.

I've been thinking about it, though — and it's not as far-fetched as you might think.

There is a precedent for women competing, albeit rarely, on the PGA Tour. Six women have done it, most recently Brittany Lincicome at the 2018 Barbasol Championship. Michelle Wie, when she looked to be on track to become the Tiger Woods of women's golf, did it eight times. The legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias was first to do it, and did it eight times. Suzy Whaley did it once. So did Detroit native Shirley Spork, along with Zaharias one of the founders of the LPGA Tour, did it at the 1952 Northern California-Reno Open, making the cut. Most notably in recent years, Annika Sorenstam played in the 2003 Colonial.

Only Zaharias (twice, 33rd and 42nd) and Spork (105th) ever made the cut.

But that's not necessarily the point. It's about being competitive, and the general consensus is Thompson, 26, the 13th-ranked women's player in the world who has won 11 times on the LPGA Tour with one major, could more than hold her own on the grounds of Detroit Golf Club.

One longtime PGA Tour pro I talked to questioned whether her putting is good enough — she's had a miserable year on the greens, and DGC's Donald Ross putting surfaces are some of the most maddening in Michigan. But she did rise to the occasion on another Ross course, Inverness in Toledo, during the Solheim Cup. But that same pro said she has the length to keep up.

DGC is one of the shorter tracks on the PGA Tour, and at an average of 280 yards, Thompson ranks third on the LPGA Tour in distance. And she can hit it longer than that; driving-distance averages often are deceiving, because it usually doesn't factor in when a player clubs down off the tee.

On the LPGA Tour, Thompson also ranks top-10 in several scoring categories, including eagles, scoring average and rounds in the 60s. She's 21st in birdies. DGC, as we all know, is a birdie bonanza.

That said, Thompson also hasn't won since 2018. Sorenstam, by comparison, had won 11 times the year she received a sponsor's exemption into the Colonial, and six more in 2003.

Now, let's set one thing straight here. There is zero indication this ever has been discussed among Rocket Mortgage folks, who get to hand out four sponsor's exemptions, essentially golden tickets. Traditionally, in the three years the tournament has been held, those exemptions have gone mostly to players tournament officials consider possible future stars in the game, like Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff. In 2020, veteran mini-tour player Willie Mack III of Flint, his life story having been well-told in golf and national media outlets, got one. Moving forward, as well, the tournament will award one of the four exemptions to the winner of the John Shippen Invitational, leaving three.

But Thompson certainly does have an "in" with the title sponsor, so if she's ever seriously interested, her case certainly would be considered.

Lexi Thompson is ranked 13th in the women's world golf rankings.

It's a fine line, of course. You don't want such a scenario to be viewed as a gimmick — a better case would be made for a No. 1-ranked women's player — but it's also the tournament's job to create buzz and move tickets. That's not insignificant for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which didn't have a hard time drawing galleries in 2019 and 2021 (COVID-19 kept fans away in 2020), but has had a much harder time drawing some of the bigger names in golf. DeChambeau, Fowler, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Hideki Matsuyama are regulars, and Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson each have played once, but we have yet to see much of the current world top 20, including most members from last week's winning Ryder Cup team.

Sorenstam's appearance at the Colonial in 2003 led to four advance sellouts, 50,000 fans a day, even though she failed to make the weekend. She also was the first woman to play in a PGA Tour tournament in more than 50 years, since Spork. It surely wouldn't be quite the ground-shaking story today.

But it still would be a story. And it still would be a draw, potentially a big one.

If Lexi even is actually interested.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984