A friend of mine alerted me to the latest trend in golf: the emergence of a new wave of physically alluring and beauteous professional golfers. It’s exciting, people—not because, obviously, “sex sells,” but because strong is the new sexy, and strong is selling big-time.
Last month, Golf Digest featured Rory McIlroy on the cover in one of the world’s most remarkable impressions of Michaelangelo’s David. This week, he became the first golfer to grace the cover of Men’s Health—a testament to the 25-year-old’s commitment to his chiseled physique. The editors were clearly impressed not only by his physical prowess, but by the method of training he uses to achieve it: “He’s not the first pro golfer to hit the gym every day, but he may be the most innovative… He has combined uncanny natural ability with a body built with science and sweat.”
According to the experts, McIlroy is the poster boy for the “new breed of superfit golfers.” But he’s not the only one.
Funny enough, his dazzling covers of late were overshadowed this week by a girl—er, woman. Last Tuesday, Golf Digest published photos from its May 2015 cover shoot with 20-year-old female pro golf sensation, Lexi Thompson, and the images are striking. Labeled the “Fitness & Power Issue,” the editors are making a bold statement with what seems to be a divergent branding approach. And people are noticing.
One male sports columnist at Deadspin was quick to suggest the new look of the cover was click bait for men eager to “leer at boobs,” effectively reducing the cover to a tawdry pinup:
“What’s to be gleaned from this? Probably just that every sports magazine, harrowed by the constant downward trend of print subscriptions, can always go looking for a Hail Mary in the shape of someone’s breasts.”
And then there was the female ESPN sports writer, who seemed so appalled by Thompson’s cover, she accused her of stooping to a “Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears-esque level”: “We get it, Lexi. You’re not a girl, not yet a woman and all that good stuff. Still, couldn’t you have opted for, I don’t know, a shirt?”
(I guess McIlroy’s shirtless cover the previous month didn’t bother her.)
The New York Post offered the back story and characterized the topless photo as the “golf magazine’s Paulina Gretzky apology”:
“Remember that time when Golf Digest featured bra-and-yoga-pants-wearing Paulina Gretzky on the cover of the magazine, on the rough grounds that she was physically fit and engaged to a PGA Tour golfer? Totally out of bounds, the glossy’s editor now admits. That’s why this year’s fitness issue cover model is 20-year-old Lexi Thompson.”
Whatever the reason, I’m sure I’m not the only non-golfer female to want to pick up a club and mimic the exciting Ms. Thompson. I want to know her secret to success. While it’s understandable that many people were fixated on her cleverly covered breasts, I was mesmerized by the total package: killer collarbones, sculpted deltoids, and a torso so taut, it explains everything. You don’t become the youngest player—she was 12 at the time—to qualify for the US Women’s Open without a mean rotational advantage.
It was her facial expression in the cover photo—more than anything—that hooked me. This, as the editors so keenly determined, was the money shot. Hers was not the come-hither allure of the Sports Illustrated variety, as my colleague Mark Judge recently described. Everything from her pose to her pout to her steady gaze and level eye contact suggests that this woman is a boss. Her makeup is on-point; lips sealed with jaw relaxed. Her brows are clean and sleek. Her hair combed back in a smooth, no-nonsense bun, adorned by nothing but simple, subtle, feminine dangles on her lobes.
You don’t get the sense that she has anything to apologize for. A quick bit of research reveals she’s six-foot tall, and this cements her intrigue. She shows no signs of slouching, and she makes neither an effort to dramatize nor to downplay her physical attributes. She is who she is in this moment, and there’s not a sliver of discomfort.
She’s selling her body alright, but not to the highest bidder. No, Thompson is a weapons dealer in the race to redefine the world’s most historically elite, historically male, predominantly gentleman’s sport. Her weapon is her body, and she’s selling the public on two notions: One, golf is a sport. And Two, it’s no longer the old boys’ club it used to be. The look on her face invites men to doubt her ability to keep up. (“Wanna bet?”) This is clearly a woman who feels comfortable in her own skin. The fact that she’s 20 years old is inconsequential—other than promising that she’s got a long, lucrative career ahead. Good for her.
The headline to her left—“Lexi and The Women Who Out-Drive You”—could not be more appropriate. She is intimidating to her male colleagues and competitors, to be sure. I’ve commented on Twitter before that nothing is more intimidating to a man than a woman with an opinion—and the resources to back it. In Thompson’s case, she seems convinced that athleticism makes for good golf, and you can bet your caddy she’ll continue to adjust her training as needed. This woman trains hard. Her own social media caption, “So pumped to represent fitness and power,” speaks volumes about her motivation.
The fact that the photo exposes a hint of the sides of her breasts does not, as so many seem to suggest, make her a sellout. Indeed, the inclusion reminds us of her tenderness. Make no mistake: She is woman—hear her roar. Even the most prized Tiger is hardly a match for a female who accepts her femininity and still chooses to participate in a male-dominated sport. This is a woman who means business, but she doesn’t have to look like a businessman to get her point across.