Kyle Thompson Living His PGA Dream

It wasn't quite a Homecoming, but it was a reunion for former University of South Carolina golfer Kyle Thompson last week at the Verizon Heritage Tournament on Hilton Head. He was among family and friends – and finally on the PGA Tour.

The rookie Thompson is already pointing toward his first Top 20 finish in a PGA Tournament after graduating from the Gamecock Golf Program in 2001. While improving his game on the Nationwide Tour, he has been looking forward to the links and the fun at Harbour Town for some time.

"This has always been on my schedule to be kind of a highlight of the year," says Thompson, "to play in my home state and in front of my friends and family and everybody come out and watch me." Thompson has the uncertain schedule of a PGA Tour rookie. "There are not many events that they are able to watch. It's real exciting to have everybody out."

Thompson was expecting about 25-30 friends and family, including his younger sisters and former USC Women Golfers Casey and Cora Thompson. "I've had so many calls from people I haven't heard from in ages," said the Gamecocks' latest addition to the Tour, which has included Brett Quigley, Carl Paulson and even former USC Coach Steve Leibler.

Parents Steve and Carol Thompson came down from their hometown of Easley, S.C and joined Kyle's new bride Emmi. The youngest Thompson (and USC) fan there could not walk the course or even see the action; Casey, married to former USC soccer star Tim Glowienka, is seven months pregnant.

Thompson was pleased to be able to play the Verizon Heritage through a sponsor's exemption. "To come back here with a course that I know fairly well and just the whole area, it's really nice."

"I just see it as another great opportunity for me to play well in front of my friends. I've got so many people that have done a lot for me, and now I can play golf in front of them instead of them watching me on the computer. A lot of them are addicts to the computer (tracking Thompson's Tournament progress)."

Thompson knows he has struggles ahead this season. He must play well to be able to qualify for tournaments he wants to play in rather than be allowed to play in. That's a big contrast to people like Quigley, an established Tour veteran who can pick and choose tournaments based on a number of factors, including how a particular course suits their golf game.

"If I get into a tournament," says Thompson, "I've got to be there. It's better than the alternative of not playing out here. "Thompson's new bride, Emmi, is making all the tournament stops with him during this first time around and making travel arrangements for the couple.

The Harbour Town golf course appears almost as good a fit for Thompson's game as the week on Hilton Head Island does for a gathering of family and friends close to home . "It does fit my game. I feel like I'm a pretty good ball striker. On this course you gotta hit it straight. The greens are really small so you got to hit a lot of greens. I feel like I'm hitting it good enough to win, really. If I could get the putter back on track where I had it two weeks ago, I'll be in great shape."

Thompson started off the Tournament with a three over 74 on a beautiful Thursday. His team finished second in Monday's Pro-Am, and on Tuesday he played in a foursome with fellow Gamecock alumnus Quigley and Clemson Tiger alums Lucas Glover and Charles Warren.

Thompson was recruited by almost every SEC and ACC team coming out of Easley, S.C. in Pickens County, especially nearby Clemson. Powerhouse Oklahoma State, along with TCU and Texas Tech, Oklahoma and lots of western schools, also sought Thompson, who eventually became a three time All American at Carolina. Thompson narrowed it down to the Southeast so his parents would be able to see him play often. Thompson wanted to go where he really felt comfortable with the head coach. At the time, Coach Puggy Blackmon had lots of former players on the PGA Tour, including David Duvall, Stewart Cink, Tripp Isenhour and many more.

Blackmon's ability to bring in sports psychologist Bob Ratella for at least one weekend each year to work with the USC team also impressed him.

"When it came down to it, I felt a lot more comfortable with Puggy," who accompanied Thompson during Tuesday's Carolina-Clemson competition practice round at the Verizon Heritage. "He sold me on what they had to offer and a lot of other schools didn't. They wanted to just talk badly about other coaches and what not. It gets kind of nasty."

Former Clemson golfer Clarence Rose used to be the only Clemson alum on the tour. Thompson admits Clemson has done extremely well in producing PGA players in recent years, and now Thompson often plays practice rounds with Lucas Glover and Charles Warren.

Thompson still uses Blackmon to work on his swing and calls Blackmon a mentor that helps fine tune Thompson's game. Thompson has visited with Blackmon at this University Club facility to work on his golf game and found out that Blackmon recently gave a lesson to Jessica Beal, who was in Columbia to film a movie.

Thompson has kept in touch with the current team through his workouts in Columbia and says Blackmon's move to administrator of the men's and women's golf programs at USC is a positive move for the Gamecocks. He believes the team can relate to Coach Bill McDonald a little bit better while still having Blackmon as a "great resource." The players not traveling to tournament and the women golfers at USC also now get to benefit from Blackmon's knowledge and teaching skills.

The Blackmon connection also led to a session with Ratella the week before the Puerto Rico Open where Thompson finished tied for 15th, his best finish on the PGA Tour.

Thompson calls his time at Carolina "awesome," and says it was probably "the best time of my life." He also made quite a mark as a two-time Academic All American (like Quigley), a four time ALL-SEC performer, and the only NCAA golfer to ever win two NCAA Regionals – The East Regional as a freshman and The West Regional as a senior. Thompson says he had lots of fun with his teammates. "We were all just great friends. I still stay in touch with a lot of the guys from my team." Many friends were expected to join in the celebration and excitement of Thompson's first time playing in the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town.

Thompson still roots for the Gamecocks. "When I am on the road, I am always following the football team. I'm pretty excited about this new hire (USC basketball coach Darrin Horn). "I try to follow it as much as I can," said Thompson, who uses every opportunity to get USC basketball and football tickets when in Columbia.

At Hilton Head he found some fans of his own. Unfortunately for Thompson, he shot a four over 75 on Friday and missed the cut. He did outperform Charles Warren by two strokes and Coastal Carolina graduate Dustin Johnson by nine shots. But no one takes the opportunity to razz someone else about their performance on Tour, even players from arch-rivals in college. "You don't do that in golf - this game's way too humbling to start pulling that." But Thompson says he's hoping to be able to send a text message or two to the Clemson contingent in celebration of a USC football victory over the Tigers in November. "We do that back and forth. It's just a friendly rivalry, for sure." Going into Tuesday's practice round, Thompson implied that would be a little different. "There'll be some trash talking going on." No results were publicized, but there were smiles by all noted during the practice round.

If Thompson does not play in a PGA Tour event on a given week, he has the option of playing in the Nationwide event that week. Thompson is well aware of the long list of Nationwide Tour graduates now winning and playing regularly on the PGA Tour: "It's a great proving ground." Thompson says the Nationwide Tour is run exactly as the PGA Tour, so the routine stays basically the same. He says the Nationwide Tour was a great path to his goal. "Playing out there for five years, I really learned a lot; a lot about patience, about how to travel, a lot about playing for money…it was a great experience. No offense, but Thompson wants to limit his Nationwide Tour schedule and eventually play only on the PGA Tour – which means he makes one of his rookie season goals - his finish at least among the top 125 on the money list and gets a full exemption for any all PGA Tournaments next season. ." He earned his Tour card for 2008 by finishing 14th on the Nationwide money list in 2007.

Thompson recognizes the success of Nationwide graduate and Vanderbilt alumnus Brent Snedeker, especially his top 3 finish at the 2008 Masters. "I played a lot with him out there on the Nationwide Tour. He's a great player, but there are 25 other guys that are also great players who haven't quite yet had the opportunity (to win)." Thompson notes that at 28 he still has some time to mature his game, as the average golfer on Tour is 33 or 34. "I have a lot more time until I hit the peak of my game. You want to play good every week and that's all I'm trying to do is get better. If I just get better every day I'm making steps – progress."

How about a victory on the PGA Tour? "It's really hard to get out here. I had a lot of close calls (On the Nationwide Tour)." This year he cannot pick a schedule of courses that suit his game and skip courses that do not; he has to play when he is allowed.

Thompson is playing in this week's Byron Nelson Classic, and then plays The Wachovia Tournament in Charlotte on a sponsor's exemption. While the Wachovia Tournament is more a Homecoming because Charlotte is closer to Easley, he counts the two as top Tournaments to play well in. "I feel like if I'm on my game, I feel like I can win any week. There would be no better place to win for me," he said before his disappointing finish. "This one or Wachovia."

He took his wife Emmi to the second round of the Master's, the first time they had ever watched golf together. He can't wait to play at Augusta National in front of her. "Next year. Soon."

Thompson does not define success this year as a Top Ten in one of the four major tournaments this season, as Snedeker has already done, but he has other definite goals for this year – a victory on the PGA Tour and to be Rookie of the Year. "If I can win on the Nationwide Tour, I should be able to win out here. It's just a matter of getting the right week where you play well and make some putts, get some breaks, stay comfortable inside your own skin, which is probably the hardest part out here. There's a lot of pressure , a lot of hype. The better you are at blocking it out, the better you are." Finishing in the top 125 would be a successful year for Thompson and give him the chance to choose when and where he plays, but it's a bench mark more than a goal.

"I've got loftier goals than just trying to squeak inside the 125 mark. I want to play in majors; I want to compete in majors. I want to do a lot of great things in this game. More than anything, seeing guys like Trevor (Immelman, 2008 Masters champ) and Brent (Snedeker) play well - I grew up playing junior golf with Trevor, I've known him forever. It's nice to see these guys doing it because I know it can be done. I've been competitive with them my whole life, I feel like I should be right there too. You've got to give them credit. Trevor's worked awfully hard," noting Immelman turned pro at 18.

"I want to be optimistic but I've got to be realistic and take it one shot at a time. That's all you can really control. You don't want to get ahead of yourself. "

Thompson sees Quigley some on the Tour, but there is a decade gap between them, and each played for a different coach. Thompson has talked with former PGA Tour pro and USC alumnus Carl Paulson more often about playing on Tour, but after playing with Quigley, Glover and Warren, the USC tandem may pair up to take on more Tigers on Tuesdays on the PGA Tour. That's because Thompson will be looking to be a Gamecock golfing alumnus coming home to South Carolina on a regular basis while playing – and winning – on the PGA Tour.

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