Michael Thompson's Improbable Golf Trip
Michael Hayes Thompson rode out of the desert of Tucson, Arizona, with his cool, unflappable stride bound for the delta city of fun, New Orleans. After golfing at Tulane University for two plus years, he was flushed out by the biggest natural disaster to pummel the crescent city in 40 years, Hurricane Katrina. He relocated for a few months to SMU in Dallas with the rest of the Green Wave team. A university decision was made in December 2005 to abandon the golf program. Not "cool." Not "fun." Thompson is about cool and fun.
Michael Thompson was thrust into the recruiting process again as Oklahoma State, Florida, Alabama, LSU and New Mexico sought his skills. "Those were my top five," he said. And of those five, Alabama was fifth to begin with. "I never thought I would go to Alabama but it worked out very nicely. Ironically, I played one of my golf tournaments for Tulane there. We played in the Conrad Rehling (Spring Invitational tournament) at Ol' Colony (Golf Complex) my freshmen year. I remember thinking I wouldn't want to go to school at Alabama. Three years later, I'm a graduate."
Coaching styles persuaded the displaced Thompson to reconsider his initial misgivings about The Capstone. "I chose Alabama pretty much because Jay Seawell is similar to Tom Shaw, my coach at Tulane. It seemed like golf was fun at Alabama and that really attracted me." Seawell's appeal to Thompson as the final piece of the puzzle to propel a good program into national prominence proved prophetic as the 2008 Ping Division 1 First-Team All-America selection was instrumental in leading Alabama to uncharted territory atop the rankings the past two seasons.
Even his impressions about Tuscaloosa evolved. "I'm from Tucson, a pretty good sized city. Then I go to New Orleans, which is a really big city. To come to Alabama (Tuscaloosa), this small town wasn't attractive to me. But once I got there it proved to be a great place. People are so nice there. You have the athletics which is fantastic. There is that down home country living which I've grown to love. It's just worked out really well."
Thompson's support system revolves around a close-knit family. His father Mike, a manufacturer's rep for a plumbing and heating company in Tucson, and mother Beth, a ninth grade English and Western Civilization teacher, are both graduates of the University of Arizona. His older brother, Ryan Thompson, is a financial consultant with IBM in Dallas. Sister Darcy, a pediatrician, is an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, while younger brother Zach attends the Air Force Academy.
Although recruited by Arizona, "Mikie" as he is affectionately called by family and friends, was advised by his golf confidant, former LPGA member Susie Meyers, and others to experience the terrain and greens of another part of the country in contrast to th desert conditions he played as a youth.
His maternal grandfather, retired Colonel J. Hayes Metzger, was ecstatic with his selection of the Crimson Tide. The West Point (1949) officer with 36 years of service received his MBA from The University of Alabama in the mid-sixties. One of the first requests he made upon learning of his grandson's choice was a photograph of "Mikie" in front of Alabama's Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration, Bidgood Hall. The coincidental decision also pleased his mother as well since she attended 5th and 6th grades in Tuscaloosa.
Thompson's grandfather recalled meeting with former Alabama assistant athletics director Carney Laslie to ask permission to attend practice. Coach Bryant's signature was required on the practice pass. Col. Metzger, a two year lettermen in baseball at West Point, contributed on some of those great post WWII Army football teams by simulating Notre Dame's All-America running back, Emil "Six Yard" Sitko during practice.
Col. Metzger now lives in New Hampshire and this year was able to attend the PGA Travelers Championship in Connecticut, where Michael was playing his third and final pro tournament as an amateur. (The others, the Masters and the United States Open.)
The only other time the 84-year-old military veteran had seen his grandson golf competitively was at the Westfield Junior PGA Championship in his native Ohio when "Mikie" was 15. A cherished moment was realized riding in a golf cart around the course together with his wife observing the day's events a few hours drive from his hometown of Wilmington.
At the Travelers for the first round of the tournament, Col. Metzger had to make his rounds via wheelehair, handled by daughter Beth and her friend, Susan Levandowski and her daughter, Linsey.
Col. Metzger suffers from macular degeneration, but was able to watch his grandson in the Travelers. He was dressed in a white jersey with crimson lettering of "Alabama." Family and friends were part of the post-round celebration as Michael posted a five-under-par performance.
Integrity is a pillar of Thompson's character prominently displayed this past spring at the Masters Golf Tournament. In the midst of trying to survive the cut, he earned eternal respect from a national audience as he correctly assessed a one stroke penalty on himself after noticing his ball had moved as he grounded his club. Maybe his heritage demanded the decisive action. This 2008 SEC Golfer of the Year along with his younger brother followed the family tradition established by their maternal grandfather and uncle by becoming Eagle Scouts. After speaking to Thompson, you sense his badges of honesty and fortitude would have prompted him to make the same call if he was playing a leisurely round of golf.
Patriotism spurred his strong desire to being a member of the United States Palmer Cup team that competed in Scotland against the best European collegiate golfers. "I get to represent the U.S. I think any time you get to do that, it's a phenomenal thing. Hopefully one day I'll make the Ryder Cup team."
Thompson's paternal grandfather also looms large in his heart. "My Grandfather was a great player. He was a scratch golfer in Tucson. He died when I was young (six) but I've always wanted to make him proud that I could play golf as well." He lived long enough to see the infancy of Thompson's career.
A famous duo made the trek to Arizona and called upon Thompson's grandfather for a round of golf. "Every time they had the Tucson Open, his claim to fame was that Dean Martin (legendary entertainer) would call him up and go have a betting game. That's my family claim to fame with him." Martin's friend Frank Sinatra would drop by occasionally to enhance the excitement.
Not only did his grandfather earn golfing trophies, he had a fondness for increasing the stakes. "My Grandfather, Don Thompson, was a betting man as all golfers were back then. My Dad told me not to long ago that my Grandfather played for $100 a hole back in the 1930's. That's kind of crazy."
His first taste of competitive golf produced an unpleasant memory for the eight year old youngster. Playing nine holes at Tucson's recreational Silverbell Golf Course while enduring the 114 degree temperature, his mother recalled the heartbreaking experience. "The parents couldn't go around and watch. I was in the clubhouse waiting for him to come in. I could see him walking up the fairway and thinking why was he not stopping and hitting. And he came walking into the clubhouse without finishing out the ninth hole. He had tears coming down his face. He wasn't sobbing but he just had tears and I said what happened? He said, "I ran out of balls." The Ricki Rarick program cut down clubs for kids. We had this old, plaid golf bag of his grandfather's (paternal) that the zipper broke when he was out there playing so all the balls fell out of his bag. They were too young to know that his playing partner could have offered. You can't ask for somebody to give you a ball but your playing partner can offer you and you can take it but they didn't know that rule. He was disqualified. He didn't understand and he was out of balls and he couldn't finish. They put DQ right by his name but he stuck with it. He's determined."
Enamored with the game after viewing on television "at age five or six", one golfer drew his attention. "I always admired Davis Love and the way he played. He seemed like a traditional golfer to me. That's just the kind of guy I wanted to be. That's actually the first golfer I ever saw on TV, so that might be why I liked him so much. I sort of liked his dress, traditional polo. He's not flashy. He's not crazy. He's very solid, a straight ball hitter." The recent U. S. Open provided the perfect occasion for him to actually meet one of his boyhood heroes.
He's as anxious as any college graduate to begin his chosen profession. "This is the first opportunity I've had in my whole life to sit down and really focus on golf," said the inaugural member of the All-Nicklaus Team announced by the Golf Coaches Association of America. "For the last 15, 16 years I've had to deal with school as well. Golf is going to be my job so that's what I'm going to do. The more time I spend on it, the better I'm going to get. I'm going to enjoy playing as a professional. This is a new time for me and a great time to learn. I'm going to go out and have fun." Progressing through the stages of Q-school to obtain his PGA Tour card is the primary goal for this season.
Susie Meyers, recommended to Thompson by Michael Hays, director of the Ricki Rarick Junior Golf Association encouraged him to focus and be positive. "I've always been mature for my age but I really started learning how to think like that from my current golf instructor, Susie Meyers. She caddied for me last week at the Open. I started working with her my freshmen year in high school. She's always worked with me on thinking positively and thinking correctly out on the golf course. She's molded me to where I am today. I don't think she could have done a better job."
Mental preparation and state of mind are equally as indispensable to a golfer's success as the clubs and individual skills which explains Thompson's subscribing to the philosophy held by one of golf's legendary figures, Bobby Jones. "Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears." He added, "It's very important how you think on a golf course. The mind is so powerful. The better attitude you have when you play the better you're going to play. I've always just focused on that. It's done me good."
Participating this past spring in the Masters and surviving the U. S. Open cut by recording the lowest amateur score emboldened his spirit. "It's really given me confidence knowing that I can play with the guys you see on TV every week. I think for anybody that would be a great feeling just knowing that I can play the golf that I know how to play. To play my game and go out and shoot the scores that those guys who have been out there so long are shooting, that only gives me confidence. There's nothing else that it does. It reinforces the fact that I can play golf and that I'm a great player and I can play on this stage. I hope to continue to use that momentum and that mind set for the rest of the year and hopefully the rest of my career."
Below the polished pristine veneer is someone who likes to have fun as he expressed from his festive days in New Orleans. Even in the wake of the catastrophic August 2005 Katrina weekend, he was strolling through life's turmoil with his trusted golf clubs destined for the safe haven of a teammate's home in Houston. "We evacuated Saturday morning, two days before the hurricane. We left so early there was no traffic. We figured as long as we got outside of Baton Rouge and Lafayette we'd be fine. So we stopped in Lake Charles. We knew a member there (Tulane alumnus) and got on at Lake Charles Country Club. I don't know if we played eighteen but we definitely played nine. So that was fun. It was a good time." He'll only admit to the idea being collaborative even though he hinted making the initial suggestion.
Thompson appreciates Alabama adopting him from his orphaned collegiate circumstances as he said, "I can't thank everybody enough. From the players, my teammates for accepting me, bringing me in and making me feel comfortable to their parents and families for getting to know them. I've met some wonderful people, the Todds, the Sykoras, the Harrells and the Hugheses. Getting to travel with them and see them week in and week out. It's been fantastic. It's just very cool."
He praises the 2008 SEC Coach of the Year for giving him a chance and a place to showcase his talents. "After Tulane I didn't really know what I was going to do. It just worked out very well. The hurricane was a blessing in disguise and I'll never stop saying that. The best thing I can say about the last couple years is I've gotten better. That's my goal every time I step out on a golf course and every year, is just to get better. I feel like I've done that and again I wouldn't have been able to do that without Jay Seawell and the Alabama golf team."
But the expressed gratitude is not only self-serving for Thompson who led the Crimson Tide team to the first SEC Championship since 1979 along with him capturing the league's individual title. He acknowledges the pleasure of being introduced and acquainted with former Alabama golfers, among them Jerry Pate, Cecil Ingram, Jr. who befriended him and Steve Lowery a lunch guest at the Masters. "The last couple of months, it's been go win the SEC," from former Alabama golfers he said. "It's nice to know there is history with the sport of golf at Alabama. I think we've started a good tradition in golf and I hope that continues. It's been good to get to know those guys because they love to see us and Alabama do well. It's nice to make them happy."
Playing as an amateur on the PGA Tour thus far, Thompson has heard a familiar cry from the patrons. "I hear Roll Tide. Not so much here (Travelers Championship) but definitely at the Open and the Masters I heard it a whole bunch. That's good. There's a lot of Alabama support out there. It's always nice to hear "Roll Tide". It startled me at how many there were (UA fans). I didn't expect so much and so constant. It seemed like especially at the Masters every couple seconds there was a "Roll Tide". It was crazy. I'm glad that I went to Alabama and I can represent the university well."
Life is best when celebrations are shared and Thompson embraced those moments at Alabama. "It's been a lot of fun these last couple of years playing for Alabama, winning all those golf tournaments as a team. It's fun to win as an individual in college but when you win as a team its something special. It's been great. Life long memories that's for sure." His profound love of Alabama enticed him to begin his professional career with Birmingham as his home base.
Thompson's Eagle Scout aura actually produced a surprising moniker according to Alabama Coach Jay Seawell. "Slick" usually conjures thoughts of a used car salesman's chicanery in contrast with Thompson's penchant for doing things the right way. He initially detested the tag but learned to love the nickname after the connotation was explained. "One of the players on the team said, "You just do everything so right. You're just kind of a slick guy, aren't you?" I think he wears the name with pride now," asserts Seawell.
Seawell extols Thompson's smarts on the course and an understanding of his own golf game as the attributes which contributed to his consistent play. Thompson's even keeled nature inherited from his Dad allows him to temper any frustrations over missed shots or poor play while the determination to forge ahead originates from his strong willed Mother. His poker playing face seldom changes whether he's playing well or struggling. Concentration on his breathing is the thermostat which dictates his calm emotional temperature. His ice water coolness could freeze a beam of Arizona sunshine rays.
Thompson's personality breeds loyalty as evidenced by his host family for the Travelers Championship. Kate Stepanek, a former All-ACC University of Maryland golfer and now on the Duramed Futures Tour met him at age fifteen while they were competing in Ohio as part of the Junior PGA. She and her family located in Guilford, Connecticut housed, fed and cheered Thompson throughout the entire week of competition. Former Tulane University teammates are still in his circle of friends as the Green Wave years are remembered fondly by the two time All-USA conference player. His former Tulane coach, Tom Shaw, now at Vanderbilt, caddied for him at the Masters.
In their quest to succeed, golfers search their bag for the proper club dependent upon among other things, the distance to the pin, their shot making capabilities and leader board position. Thompson's personality bag is infused with intangibles made for the game. He personifies the steadfastness of his Midwestern ancestry merged with the fearless pioneering spirit of his Southwestern upbringing providing the perfect balanced union for a golfer equipped for championship golf. "He has a lot of confidence when he has to hit a shot," exclaimed Seawell. "Though he may not be a river boat gambler, he knows sometimes you have to hit a golf shot and he has never been afraid on the golf course. He puts the game in perspective and he's such a great putter that he can put a little more pressure on himself."
Thompson's amateur success at two Major tournaments earned him endorsement relationships with PING for hat, golf bag and equipment and Titleist for balls, shoes and gloves. He pledged allegiance to the two companies whose products have been a staple for him throughout his career. Jay Danzi, Managing Director of the Golf Division for Wasserman Media Group, a fully integrated team, handles a range of tasks for him including contract negotiations, public relations, scheduling, commercial and merchandising opportunities, media and day to day services. Thompson is fully conscious of the symbiotic relationship between business and athletic performance. "For me, not too many guys are in the situation I'm in. I'm very lucky to be in that situation. I have so many opportunities available to me. I'm looking forward to it and just hope I keep playing well. If I play well, everything is easy."
Embarking on a professional career in a sports world saturated with colossal egos, Thompson speaks with clarity about himself. "I can't lose sight of where I've come from and where I've been and what kind of person I am. There's a balance there and I don't want to get too caught up in playing professionally and being some great player. I'm still Michael and that's very important to me. If I can get better while keeping my composure and keeping my mentality, then that would be great."
Cool is the aroma he exhales and fun is the alluring cologne he inhales. The poised twenty three old Arizona native has navigated through moments of adversity with a cool manner while managing some fun along the hurricane filled, transfer road of life. Since he first swung a club, his destiny card was engraved with the dream of playing against the best. Perhaps those lessons are just enough for him to continue the journey being cool and having fun as a professional golfer.
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