OWINGS MILLS, Md. — To be young and inexperienced is usually a disadvantage in sports, but in women’s golf, it is the envy of LPGA veterans. The young stars on tour are fearless, unburdened by pressure and have little to lose.
With Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko and, most recently, 11-year-old Lucy Li, women’s golf sees a “prodigy” break on to the LPGA’s biggest stages regularly. Records for the youngest player to win this tournament or that one keep getting lower.
The early maturation of women coupled with advanced technology has allowed more young players to compete at the highest level of women’s golf. The field in the LPGA’s International Crown at Caves Valley Golf Club this weekend is littered with young stars, such as Thompson, and veterans who sometimes envy their carefree spirit.
“When I watched Lucy Li on the U.S. Open, she didn’t really care whether she has bogey or double bogey or triple bogey,” said Korea’s Na Yeon Choi, 26. “So after I watched her game, I just want to go back to when I was a rookie, you know. I wish I could, but like these days I think I’m kind of like scared to lose when I play. So I want to be more aggressive on the course, and I don’t want to care even like at all about the results.”
Jim McLean, who’s coached Thompson and Li, admits it’s a “fascinating question”: Why are teenagers able to compete with veterans in women’s golf? Thompson is No. 6 on the tour at 19, and Li, more than a year away from even becoming a teen, recently became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Open.
Most women physically develop faster than men, growing very little after 16, whereas men will continue to grow years later. The top-ranked player on the tour, Stacy Lewis, said that with technological advancements in equipment, “13- and 14-year-olds can hit it just as far as 20- and 30-year-olds. I mean, that’s just kind of the way the game of golf is now.”
McLean said that in his experience, the women he’s coached are also mentally more mature than men, take instruction well and are incredibly disciplined. Golf being an individual sport, players don’t have to rely on organized practice times, but can do as much or as little as they want on their own, leading to younger players with better technique.
“I don’t really start working with kids that young ever, but I did with Lucy,” McLean said. “Her parents brought her out from San Francisco. I don’t work with her every day, but she was there all of the time, playing golf with my assistants. She’s put in a lot of time, and it’s a different mentality. I don’t see a lot of kids working like that.”
When Thompson qualified for the U.S. Open at 12, she was the youngest to do so, but now Li has that record. When Thompson won the Navistar Classic at 16, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA tournament, but Ko has since bested her, winning the Canadian Open at 15.
“I think that the game is getting younger and younger, especially on the women’s side,” Thompson said. “I think that girls are just starting to practice at a younger age. But I think coming out here, even when I was a lot younger, I was definitely fearless. Even if you watched me, I just rammed them, I didn’t really care where it went.”
Yani Tseng was ranked No. 1 from 2011 to 2013 and was the youngest player to win five majors, male or female. Now 25, her ranking has plummeted to No. 53. Watching 17-year-old Ko play reminded Tseng of how she used to play.
“When you play with them, you feel like they’re so enjoying everything they do out there,” Tseng said of the sport’s young stars. “I want to get back to that. I feel when I watch [Ko] play, I feel like the same as when I played on my rookie year when I was winning the tournament, when I was world No. 1. But now I don’t feel like I’m enjoying it as much as back then.”
Though public interest is higher when an 11-year-old in pigtails is on the course, opinion is divided on whether the youthful trend is a good thing for the sport. After Li qualified for the U.S. Open, Lewis told reporters she wasn’t a “big fan” of that young a competitor because she likes to see “kids be successful at every level before” they play in a major.
She took a more diplomatic approach Tuesday, saying it varies from player to player, and someone such as Ko should be competing on the LPGA. Karen Supples, a major champion and one of Golf Channel’s on-course reporters for the International Crown, said she would not want her child to compete that young.
“Being a mother to a 7-year-old boy, I would probably not want that for him at such a young age,” Supples said. “I would love for him to just live his childhood out and have as much fun as he possibly could.”
McLean said going to college and playing there first, as Lewis did, can be a “dead-end street for the ladies’ tour” because your focus is split while other women are only concentrated on playing every day and improving. “You’re losing four years,” he said.
Both approaches have had their successes. Thompson said she sometimes has to stop herself and think of all she’s accomplished since she was a 12-year-old in the U.S. Open because it still hasn’t hit her. Every time another young up-and-comer makes her debut on the Tour, Thompson and others are reminded of what it was like to be that young, and what it’s like to not be anymore.
Said Paula Creamer: “When I first came out, I was 18 years old, and I was a baby. Now 18 is your ancient.”