BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Leonard Thompson has teed up the golf ball in a professional event 1,068 times during a 45-year-career, more than all but a couple of handfuls of players. Today, the 69-year-old Thompson will tee it up for a 1,069th time —and perhaps his last.
“I’m going to say this is my last major,” said Thompson, a Laurinburg native. “If I happen to play decent, I want to leave a little bit of wiggle room.”
Thompson is playing in the Regions Tradition, the Senior Tour’s version of The Masters, on a special invitation, something he was extended based on $7.6 million in career earnings and winning six times on the PGA and Senior tours during a career that began in 1971 and effectively ended in 2009, when Thompson decided he wanted to enjoy seeing his grandchildren grow up.
The invitation might have also been extended because Thompson, whose full-time home is now in Ponte Vedra, Fla., spends a few months each year at a second home at Greystone Golf and Country Club, near his son Stephen, and the venue for the Regions Tradition.
Thompson, who was born on the first day of 1947, the only child of Cecil and now 92-year-old Mae Thompson, was always the best athlete in the neighborhood, spending his time between Scotch Meadows Country Club and the gym. His golf skills while at Laurinburg High School don’t need to be remembered, but he was good enough to be named all-state in basketball, and as a senior in 1965, added football to the mix while being named the Southeastern 3A Athlete of the Year.
Thompson knew if he was going to make a living playing a game, it wasn’t going to be for the Celtics, so he accepted legendary coach Jesse Haddock’s invitation to play golf at Wake Forest University and during his sophomore year, he married the former Lea Noble, and the two will celebrate their 50th anniversary on Sept. 3.
While a member of the team, the Demon Deacons finished fourth, third and second in NCAA tournament. His senior year, Thompson played No. 2 on the team, behind Jack Lewis, and in front of future PGA Tour players Joe Inman and Lanny Wadkins, now a Hall of Famer.
“The team my senior year was arguably one of the best in college history,” said Thompson, who was an all-American as a junior and a senior and has been inducted into Wake’s Hall of Fame.
Despite that resume, earning a card to play the PGA Tour is never guaranteed, and it took Thompson two swings at the PGA’s qualifying school to earn his card. There were plenty of doubters, and a thinner number of supporters.
“When I started the tour in 1971 there were a lot of people … who said that I would be back home and looking for a job in a year or two,” Thompson said. “There was one person who always encouraged me and always told me that I had the talent to make it on the the tour. Nicky McKeithan was always a positive force and I will never forget how he helped me. He was and is a real friend and I will forever be grateful for his friendship.”
McKeithan, who played college football at Duke University and was drafted to play in the NFL, took up golf late, but in plenty of time to become the best amateur player for many years in Robeson County. He became aware of Thompson when Thompson was a standout athlete at Laurinburg High and competing against McKeithan’s alma mater, Lumberton High.
“He was a good athlete,” said McKeithan. “I was always impressed with him. Nothing came easy for Leonard, no one gave him anything. He had to work for everything. He did it through hard work and perseverance.”
Their decades-long friendship, during which they teed it up often at Pinecrest Country Club with a couple of dollars and bragging rights on the line, continues today, although McKeithan, now in his early 80s, rarely plays. Now they might recall the good old days over biscuits.
“I don’t play with him,” McKeithan said, “but when he is in town, he will come by Hardee’s and he will sit and talk an hour or two, telling stories. It’s really an honor to have him as a friend.”
A good story is Thompson’s first time playing a PGA event, the 1971 U.S. Open, won by Lee Trevino and famously remembered for the Merry Mex tossing a rubber snake at runner-up Jack Nicklaus before the two teed off for an 18-hole playoff. Thompson, then an assistant golf professional in Myrtle Beach, opened with a 70 on the Merion Golf Course, and looked like he would make the cut before he bogeyed three of the last four holes for an 80, missing playing the weekend by 2 strokes.
“It was inexperience,” Thompson said. “I was trying to make birdies when I didn’t need them.”
Thompson cashed his first check, for about $600, at the Azalea Open, and then made three straight cuts, earning about $6,000 — enough to keep status for the following year.
“I thought I was rich,” he said.
A string of missed cuts followed, during which Thompson said he found out “what the tour is about.”
But Thompson was on the early holes of what would become a solid career that included six wins, his first being the 1974 Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic during which he beat Hale Irwin by 1 shot and Nicklaus by 2. It was the richest purse on tour at the time, $52,000, and afterward Thompson donated $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club.
Thompson said he learned during the tournament that the local club was on the verge of shutting down.
“I said if I won, I was going to give them $10,000,” Thompson said.
He did and he did.
He added wins in the 1977 Pensacola Open, the 1989 Buick Open and, as a senior, the 1998 Coldwell Banker Burnet Classic, 2000 State Farm Senior Classic and the 2001 Enterprise Rent-A-Car Match Play Championship.
He almost bagged another during the 1977 Colgate Hall of Fame at Pinehurst No. 2, when he shot 15 under par for the tournament that included a 7-under-par 29 on the back nine of the Sunday round, but finished five shots behind Irwin.
“You shoot 15 under at Pinehurst No. 2, you’re supposed to win,” he said. “I tell people I won four tournaments but I only got three trophies.”
Although Thompson still had status on the Senior Tour, the last time he played a double-digit number of tournaments was in 2009, and he has played in only 13 events since, the last two years ago. Thompson left his buddies — “the friendships you make are the best thing about playing the tour” — for new partners, his grandchildren: Son Stephen gave him two, MacKenzie and Foster, and his daughter Marti Parson gave him two, Ford and Mary Lesley.
Thompson, in assessing his career, is a tough grader.
“I think I was kind of average,” he said. “I wasn’t a great player. I had my chances, including in some majors, but didn’t cash in.”
For perhaps the first time in his career, Thompson tees off in a professional event without expectations. He still plays about 250 times a year recreationally, including when he visits Lumberton, teeing it up with nine-time county champion Kyle Covington, who plans to drive eight hours to Birmingham to watch his friend.
“He’s always been good to me,” said Covington, “very approachable, and also good to the people at the club he knows and the ones he doesn’t know. He has been generous with his time and thoughts.
“I didn’t get to see him back when he was on the regular tour or the senior tour, so I thought it would pretty neat to go down there and see him play.”
Thompson hopes to put on a good show, but knows there’s rust on his irons — and a churn in his stomach.
“I don’t know what to expect,” said Thompson, who has been relentless in his preparation. “I honestly don’t. I’m just going to try to play the best I can.”
Sometime on Sunday, the later the better, Thompson will hole out on No. 18, shake the hands of his playing partners, sign his scorecard, and put a bow on a five-decades career of doing what he loved and did well.
He will then drive a couple of hundred yards to his Birmingham home, his wife Lea and friends and family, taking with him all the memories that playing thousands of rounds of golf with the world’s best players on the world’s best courses and for millions of dollars can produce.
Leonard Thompson enjoys a cake at the 2009 SAS Championship in celebration of his 1,000th golf tournament. Thompson has played in 1,068 professional events, ranking him in the top 10 all-time.