The darling of the 2014 Women's U.S. Open at Pinehurst this year was not the winner Michelle Wie but eleven-year-old Lucy Li. Her colorful outfits and bubbly personality stole the show for anyone who watches women's golf. She handled the pressure of being only eleven at playing in one of the biggest events in women's golf. But this begs the question, is eleven years old too young to play in a U.S. Open?
Note that Lucy was not even the youngest player who attempted to qualify! She was the youngest to qualify but there was a nine year old, Alexa Pano from Florida, who was not successful but gave it her best effort. My daughter is still quite young, but nine years old seems on the young side to be playing in the biggest stage of women's golf. At nine, I never gave a thought to giving press interviews people asking me questions in press conference. Is this too much at such a young age?
I say yes. They should implement a minimum age of fifteen to qualify for the event. This way the golfer is at least in high school before playing in a professional event. Some will say that maturity is not defined by a person's age, and that I should not arbitrarily set an age of fifteen because some ten year olds may be more mature than other seventeen year olds. This is true but some age must be chosen and this is my suggestion.
Other sports have implemented an age limit to protect the young talents. Olympic gymnastics for example has set the age at sixteen. Their theory is that a child's skeleton is not yet ready to handle the day to day stress of Olympic training until they are sixteen. I think that in addition the stress of an entire nation on these kid's shoulders it would be easier to handle at that at sixteen then at nine. Golf, while not as physically demanding still has much of the press hoopla that the athlete will need to manage in addition to just playing the game. With all the focus on Li and having to give so many interviews it was little surprise she was unable to play well at the event.
The results of these young girls playing in professional events are mixed. Lexi Thompson, who Li replaced as the youngest sectional qualifier, qualified for the U.S. Open at the age of twelve has gone on to have a great career with minimal hiccups. Thompson won her first major this year and is likely to become a driving force in the women's game. Michelle Wie, who now has come into her own, struggled to find her game even she was a wunderkind at such a young age. Michelle was mismanaged, mostly by her parents, but I am sure the lure of millions of dollars drove many of the decisions. At such a young age the pressures and responsibilities are too much and likely set her back a few years. Michelle is now rightfully taking her place amongst the game's best but she should have been there years ago.
I feel strongly that kids should be able to be kids. They should be without the pressures to play well, and then be put in front of the circus of media questions. Li was great at it. Her two rounds of 78 were very respectable for the stage that she was on. Making the cut would have been an outstanding achievement, so breaking eighty was pretty successful in my opinion. She was wonderful in front of the press as well. There is no question she did a great job but I am very suspicious that all kids her age could have handled it as well. Add to this, she did have some practice. Recently, she had just won her age group at drive, chip and putt contest held at Augusta National a few months earlier. If she had gone out and shot 88 both days it may have scared her. This is the reason in my opinion to have the age limit.
Golfers under fifteen will still have an outlet to play golf at a very high level. There are many AJGA events and even the US Women's Public Links, or the Women's Amateur. These are events that young girls can play in but not have the scrutiny that a U.S. Open brings. So in essence they can work their way up to the bigger events.
I doubt the USGA will implement my idea. In their mind the Lucy Li show was only a positive and those young girls whose careers might have been set back are road kill. Their thinking is, if Lucy did it why can't the other girls. This is short sighted and only hurts the game in the end. I am certain they feel the media play from Lucy was extremely beneficial for the event and so why change anything.
Photo credits: © Scott Halleran