It is hard to imagine how there could be a more popular winner of the 2018 ANA Inspiration than Lexi Thompson.
The world No.2 will return this week to Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, for the first time since landing at the centre of an unfortunate rules fiasco; a rules fiasco that ultimately cost her a second major championship title.
For those who have forgotten, a brief recap.
Despite bogeying the 12th hole in the final round of the first major of the 2017 season, Thompson still led the tournament by two shots when she was approached by a rules official on her way to the 13th tee.
She was informed that, after reviewing an incident brought to their attention by a television viewer, officials were retroactively applying two penalties on her third round score. The first was a two-stroke penalty for incorrectly replacing her ball on the 17th green; the second was another two-stroke penalty for subsequently signing an incorrect scorecard. Thus, her two-shot lead became a two-shot deficit, with only five holes of the tournament left to play.
She battled her way into a play-off with So-yeon Ryu but was ultimately beaten at the first extra hole of a sudden-death play-off.
The incident overshadowed the tournament and divided opinion. Many of Thompson’s fellow professional golfers – Tiger Woods, Brittany Lincicome, Hunter Mahan and Karrie Webb amongst them – leapt to her defence on Twitter. Many of the platform’s other users were less kind, some even going so far as to label her a ‘cheat’.
At the heart of it all, standing shoulder to shoulder with Thompson, was her Scottish caddie, Kevin McAlpine. It was the former Scottish Amateur champion’s third week on the bag. The cliché you're grasping for is 'baptism of fire'.
“It was chaotic,” McAlpine tells bunkered.co.uk. “I’d never seen anything like that up close before, never mind been a part of it.”
“It was definitely different and it took a while to get over, partly because everybody wanted to talk about it. Even when people were sympathising, all that did was keep it bobbing along on the surface. Don’t get me wrong, the support was great but it made it hard to move on. It seemed like everybody wanted to know everything about what had happened for a good while afterwards.”
McAlpine reckons it wasn’t until Thompson landed her first win of the season at the Kingsmill Championship in May that she was able to put the event behind her.
“I think it weighed on her until then,” he adds. “People say that winning fixes most things but it’s undoubtedly true.
“The thing about Lexi is that she’s incredibly resilient, hard-working and determined, which is testament to her character. For a young girl to have all that is so impressive. Don’t forget, she’s only 23.
“Experiences like the ANA last year can make you or break and I think Lexi is definitely stronger for having gone through what she did last year. She’s had a few big hurdles to overcome in the last year or so and full credit to her, she’s done just that. I think she’s a better player and a tougher, more determined person than she was a year ago.”
A former Scotland international, McAlpine’s hopes of forging his own playing career were over before they began when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament ahead of his final season as an amateur.
He got back to full health but found it hard to rediscover his best form, which in turn gnawed away at his confidence. Consequently, when he turned pro in 2010, he struggled to establish himself.
He took up caddying to help make ends meet but helping other people with their games got in the way of looking after his own and, soon, he found himself in the eye of a destructive storm.
Ultimately, he ended up turning his back on playing the game for a living and, at the end of 2016, started a job as a sales rep for Scottish junior equipment brand Golphin.
He did that for four or five months before fate dealt him a royal flush. With the RICOH Women’s British Open due to take place at Kingsbarns Golf Links in 2017, Lexi’s dad, Scott, wanted to find his daughter a caddie for the week with a bit of local knowledge. Dornoch-born Jimmy Gunn got wind of this through Lexi’s brothers Nicholas and Curtis – both of whom, like Gunn, play on the Web.com Tour – and he recommended Kevin to the family.
They talked on the phone and came to an agreement that Kevin would caddie for Lexi that week in Fife.
Three weeks later, McAlpine’s phone rang again.
“It was Lexi’s dad to say things weren’t really working out with her current caddie and he wanted to know if I would be interested in a more full-time arrangement,” he explains.
He didn’t need to ask twice.
Next thing he knew, McAlpine was on a flight to Arizona, where he teamed-up with Lexi for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. They were four-under for the first two rounds – but the cut fell at minus-five. “That was a big reality check,” admits McAlpine. “That showed me just how the standard was.”
The following week was the KIA Classic, where they finished in a tie for 11th. Progress.
Then came the ANA Inspiration. Chaos.
Strangely, though, hindsight may reveal it to be a serendipitous, defining moment for player and caddie alike.
As Ryu was leaping into Poppie’s Pond, as is the wont of the ANA winner, Thompson was praising McAlpine to the hilt. “My caddie helped me out tremendously,” she said of McAlpine's reaction to the ruling. “We have a great relationship and he just said to me, ‘Stay with it. You can still win and we can birdie this hole.’”
As the season wore on, their relationship blossomed. Thompson won the Indy Women In Tech Championship in September en route to winning the Race To CME Globe and, for posting the best scoring average on the LPGA across the 2017 season, she bagged the Vare Trophy, too. She also played a starring role in the USA’s Solheim Cup victory at Des Moines Country Club in Iowa. More on that shortly.
The events of the last 12 months have given McAlpine a fresh perspective on the events of the last ANA Inspiration.
“I can’t sit here and say with absolute honesty that I wish it had never happened because the truth is that it helped me get the job,” he says. “Do I wish it hadn’t helped for Lexi’s sake? Of course. But from a purely personal point of view, it gave me an opportunity to prove myself.
“It was difficult to get Lexi's head back in the game after the penalty. It was just a crazy situation and, as it would anybody, it hit Lexi hard. As I’ve said, I had never experienced anything like that before so I just had to do what I could to help her re-focus. In the end, it was tough to lose in the play-off but I was just glad that I was able to help at that moment in time.”
By his own admission, working for Thompson has changed McAlpine’s life, not least off the course. He has recently moved into a new home in Orlando with his girlfriend, two-time major winner Anna Nordqvist.
“Anna’s awesome and she and Lexi get on really well, so it has all worked out for the best,” he adds. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
He could, though, have been forgiven for wanting to change the singles order on the final day of last year’s Solheim Cup, an order that pitched his boss against his better half in the first match of the day.
As it turned out, Thompson and Nordqvist produced one of the great Solheim Cup singles battles, eventually halving a topsy-turvy match after a stunning approach into the 18th green by the Swede.
Afterwards, Nordqvist described herself as ‘speechless’ by the duel. Thompson called it ‘the weirdest round of golf I've ever played’. McAlpine? He admits it was an ‘interesting’ day.
“If ever there was a game of two halves, that was it,” he says. “It was tough, I can’t pretend it wasn’t. But, you know, each of us had a job to do and I think we all did it well. For those three or four hours, it was a case of ‘game face on’ and, in the end, a think a half was a pretty fair result.
“Plus, it was the best possible outcome for me, too: I kept my job and kept my girlfriend!”
Watch the 2018 ANA Inspiration live on Sky Sports
Live first round coverage of the 2018 ANA Inspiration is on Sky Sports Golf, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Mix this Thursday (March 29) from 5pm.