Independence, Kan., may qualify as a small town, but it has produced some big hitters.
Located in the southeastern part of the state, Independence is the hometown of the late William Inge, whose work in 1961 earned him an Academy Award for story and screenplay in Splendor in the Grass.
Chris Thompson — another Independence standout — is authoring his own story. Title it splendor on the grass.
A journeyman golf professional, Thompson defines staying power. Maybe you have heard this storyline for 2018: A 40-something golfer who hopes to prove that he’s still got it. Could be Tiger Woods, right? But also consider Thompson. After all, he is going places he hasn’t been in years.
Thompson, the first two-time All-America men’s golfer at the University of Kansas (1998-99), has achieved exempt status for the first eight events in 2018 on the Web.com Tour, which serves as the developmental tour for the PGA Tour. That hasn’t been the case for Thompson, 41, since 2007.
An ultimate grinder who has played in more Monday qualifiers than he prefers to count and has scoured Priceline.com for the cheapest rates for flights and hotels, possesses an iron will to succeed. Although golf has been anything but a get-rich endeavor, Thompson never has considered ending his pursuit.
“Every year it’s been, ‘Let’s keep going.’ I feel I’m good enough to at least keep going,” said Thompson, who calls Lawrence home. “When I’m good, can I still win a golf tournament, whether it’s the Nebraska Open or a PGA Tour event? Am I still giving myself a chance to win? I feel at my best I could. Whether that’s delusional or not, I don’t know.”
Gary Woodland knows. The way in which Thompson has remained on the radar comes as no surprise to Woodland, a two-time PGA Tour winner and fellow Jayhawk alum who mentioned Woods and Thompson in the same breath.
“Chris is the Tiger Woods of Lawrence Country Club. He’s so good,” Woodland said. “With me, he always plays well, so I’ve seen it for a long time.
“We have some good back-and-forth. He makes so many dang putts against me. I couldn’t be happier for the guy. It just shows his drive. The game’s never been lacking. How he goes out to prove he belongs is awesome.”
The effort that Thompson has exuded to reach this point blossomed at KU. He chose the Jayhawks after seeing the value in playing for a terrific player in his own right, coach Ross Randall, who passed away in April. Randall was an All-America at San Jose State, joining others such as Johnny Miller and Hale Irwin for that elite honor 50 years ago.
“It always helps to get instruction from a great player. He got us in fantastic tournaments every year. We got to play against some of the better teams in the country,” Thompson said of Randall, who was known for snacking on Bugles slathered with Easy Cheese during road trips.
Those road trips included some tasty options, including a tournament at Stanford, in which Thompson was in the final group with the Cardinal’s Woods.
“He put a beatdown on me,” said Thompson, adding that he viewed it as a positive learning experience about how to cope with adversity. “Anytime you’re out of your comfort zone, it’s a good thing, and I wasn’t comfortable at any point during that round.”
Thompson shelved his degree in Business Administration to turn professional in 1999.
“Ross thought I was good enough to (turn pro). There was no down side to trying,” said Thompson, who that summer won his first pro event on the Prairie Tour.
In all, Thompson has nine pro victories, the last coming in the 2014 Nebraska Open. In late 2006, Thompson flirted with earning a PGA Tour card until he hit out of bounds twice off the tee on the par-5 ninth and carded a 9 in the Qualifying Tournament at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. Although he still had two rounds to go, Thompson never recovered and instead landed on the Web.com Tour for 2007. His best finish in a Web.com Tour event was a seventh-place tie in the 2013 Air Capital Classic Supporting Wichita’s Youth.
The process in the decade for which Thompson has not had exempt status has been anything but glamorous. It has meant standing in line two hours for a rental car so that he could drive three hours to an event. It has called for booking hotel rooms on the Internet the day before arrival to receive reduced rates. It often has relegated him to playing Monday qualifiers to enter tournaments.
It even affected his family, which includes his wife, Jessica; daughter, Landry; and son, Henry.
“We spent our first anniversary going to Outback Steakhouse in Valdosta, Ga., when Chris was there for a tournament,” Jessica said.
She caddied for him once, and that was enough for her. There was a moment of frustration, which could be excused as understandable when you labor for so long to reach the dream. “He broke his putter over his knee,” Jessica said. “He had two holes left, so he had to finish by using an iron. I picked up the half of it (putter) that didn’t go in the lake.”
To this day, though, she has given him her blessing to chase the dream while she holds down the home front.
“I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s setting a good example for the kids about determination, hard work and following your dream.”
Chris understands that he has his dream girl. “She is the pillar that Team Thompson leans on,” he said.
By Thompson’s own estimate, the largest check that he has earned was $35,000 for a triumph in an event in 2013 on the eGolf Professional Tour. Yet by earning exempt status for 2018 after finishing tied for 16th earlier this month in the Web.com Tour Qualifying School at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., Thompson faces the opportunity of much larger paydays. He opens the Web.com Tour season Jan. 13 in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at the Emerald Reef Course at Sandals Emerald Bay.
If he earns enough money in those first eight exempt events to place in the top 100, he will gain an exemption for the remainder of the year (Thompson plans to play in seven of the first eight). Plenty of people, including multiple sponsors and friends, have his back.
“To keep chasing a dream is tough for anybody,” said friend Ryan Graves. “He doesn’t talk about his dreams, but everybody around him knows he’s been chasing them a long time. He’s a guy that’s real easy to root for.”
Thompson’s swing instructor, Greg LaBelle, is convinced that his pupil can succeed at this level.
“He doesn’t hit it as far as some of the young bombers that murder the ball,” LaBelle said. “But the best part about golf isn’t necessarily how far you hit it. Really, no weakness is his strength. He’s a fantastic ball striker; short game is great. He makes good decisions, always giving himself a chance. That’s the key to golf — to give yourself a chance with nine to play.”
Woodland said Thompson’s wedge play rivals that of Zach Johnson or Matt Kuchar, another sign to him that Thompson can take his game to the next level. Thompson has multiple avenues through which he can still become a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour, too, including a top 25 finish on the Web.com Tour money list; gaining one of the additional 25 spots made available through the four-tournament Web.com Tour Finals; or earning a Battlefield Promotion, in which three wins during the season means instant promotion to the PGA Tour.
“He definitely has the game. It’s a matter of putting it together at the right time,” Woodland said. “I’m excited for him. Hopefully I’m playing with him next year.”
Thompson has experienced the top tier. He played in but missed the cut at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. That same year, he made the cut in the AT&T Byron Nelson (tying for 64th), allowing him to enjoy the perks of that event, including a free haircut, free dry cleaning, free massage and the use of a courtesy car (he didn’t need one; Thompson drove to Texas).
No matter what happens in 2018, expect Thompson to keep reaching for the stars.
Really, it’s all he knows how to do.
“I get a lot of questions about why I keep doing it,” he said. “This is what I do. This is what I do best. There’s some value in that, doing whatever you do best.”