Golf's Generation Next gets younger

Alexis Thompson is only 15 years old, so young that some teenagers seeking her autograph at the US Women's Open are older than she is.

There is concern over Alexis Thompson's move to turn professional at a young age.
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OAKMONT, PENNSYLVANIA // Alexis Thompson is only 15 years old, so young that some teenagers seeking her autograph at the US Women's Open are older than she is. She enjoyed considerable success as an amateur, and this week she will play her second tournament as a professional. It just happens to be the women's national championship, an event so demanding it can make the most mature of pros consider retirement.

Which raises the question: how young is too young? Top-tier amateur golfers once weighed up whether to turn pro or go to college. Now, the choice comes sooner: finish a traditional high school or turn pro. Thompson chose the latter, and will conclude her pre-college studies as a home-schooled student. Asked who accompanied her to Oakmont, Thompson rattled off the same list any teen might offer before a prime athletic event: her parents, a grandmother and an uncle. With one exception: her agents are here, too.

"If I can just go out and just relax and play my own game, I think I'll play really well out there," said Thompson, who is from Coral Springs, Florida. "Just keep a consistent four-day score and just play really well, I think I can compete out there." She will be content, she said, if she shoots par. Ambitious, she is; even-par at Oakmont would have won the 2007 US Open by five shots - the men's open, that is.

She is not alone. There are 23 teenagers in the field for the Open, including two 14-year-olds playing as amateurs. To world No 1-ranked Cristie Kerr, who is coming off a 12-stroke victory in the LPGA Championship, it is a bit disconcerting to see so many youngsters crowding on to a golf course at an age when most teens are enthused with a movie and a night at the mall. Kerr said she was surprised to see Thompson turn pro so young, even if Thompson's two older brothers, Nicholas and Curtis, are golf pros. Nicholas plays on the PGA Tour.

Kerr, who led after two rounds at last year's Women's Open in eastern Pennsylvania before being overtaken by surprise winner Eun-Hee Ji, will be the clear favourite as the Women's Open begins play this morning at Oakmont. "I played with a girl that was 14 in the practice round," Kerr said. "They don't carry themselves like kids anymore. People that are that young, it's kind of a business to them. They want to do it to make money and have a career."

So much for baby-sitting or walking the neighbour's dog. "I just thought my game was ready, and I wanted to take my game to the next level and play against the best in the world," Thompson said. "I'm really happy with my decision, and my family has supported me the whole way." Thompson, the youngest to turn pro to date, first qualified for the US Open at age 12 in 2007 before winning the US junior girls title a year later.

Still, several of the most experienced pros are wondering if it's the best decision to send 10th graders into such an intense, competitive environment. So much for the stereotypical Little League parents, who are content for their kids to take home a shiny gold trophy. Now, it can be argued, there are LPGA parents who cannot wait for a child's puberty to end before allowing her to go pro. Michelle Wie, who is now 20, might have her career stalled when her parents allowed her to accept exemptions into men's PGA Tour events. To some of her fellow golfers, she would have been better served playing in LPGA tournaments or high-profile amateur events.

* AP