Lydia Ko, the 16-year old golf phenom who won twice on the LPGA Tour while still an amateur, and was the youngest to do so at 14 years of age, recently petitioned Commissioner Mike Whan for early entry into the LPGA Tour. Not surprisingly, her petition was granted and she now has full rights to play on the LPGA tour for the 2014 season.
Whether or not teenage girls should push through their teen years to gain early entry into the Tour is a matter of intense debate. I recently wrote an article entitled Should Ko Turn Pro? 5 Reasons the Answer is No which led to much intense debate on social media. My heartfelt belief is that Ko and others of her ilk should not rush their teen years to grow up and play as professionals too quickly. I appreciate how Tiger and Phil both spent some portion of their development honing their skills in the amateur and collegiate ranks. However, I can certainly appreciate what might feed in to such a decision. Measuring recent and strong success with the allure of lucrative sponsorship deals against noble and abstract concepts such as “the collegiate experience” plus a possible mountain of debt from sponsoring a child through a rigorous and expensive sport mean the scales will naturally tip, i.e. dive, in favor of turning pro a bit earlier. Indeed, the ink is still wet on Ko’s lucrative sponsorship deal with Callaway Golf announced earlier this week.
The burden therefore falls on commissioner Whan to decide if these girls are ready. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Whan’s job is not to protect these young women from their parents, their coaches or themselves, or even from the harsh realities of tour life and playing in the spotlight. His job is to promote and sell the product that is the LPGA Tour. Has he? I’ll say. The LPGA was in severe disarray when Whan took over in 2010 having lost both sponsors and venues. The beleaguered women’s Tour was on shaky ground; television airtime was very low and there was much loss of interest from many American fans. In just three years Whan has already realized his vision of an LPGA Tour with 32 events; all of which are televised. Prize money is at an all-time high of $56 million. Whan has also announced two inaugural events for the 2014 season; The International Crown in which eight nations compete for the title of the world’s best golf nation, and the year-long Race to the CME Globe, the Ladies’ version of the FedEx Cup. Whan understands and appreciates his product, and he knows how to sell it, making his reign one that some media types have referred to as “The Whan Supremacy.” His job is to make sure his product has stars that move the needle and drive interest, ticket sales, and prize money. This is greatly needed on an American tour which, at the time, had only two American women in the Top 10 ranking.
Most certainly the wheels for Ko’s entry had been greased by Lexi Thompson who previously held the record for the youngest player to win an LPGA event when she won the Navistar Classic at 16 years old. The previous year Thompson had petitioned the LPGA to allow her to play in up to 12 LPGA tournaments using sponsor exemptions instead of just six normally allowed for non-members according to LPGA rules. Commissioner Whan denied Thompson’s petition, but announced that the rules would be changed to allow non-members to participate in Monday qualifying. The Tour also granted Lexi permission to compete in Qualifying School for that year. After winning the Navistar LPGA Classic, Thompson withdrew from qualifying tournaments and successfully petitioned the LPGA for membership based on her win.
On the other side of the pond the newly minted ladies’ professional Charley Hull made her debut on the Ladies’ European Tour in 2013, the same month she turned 17 years old, and then proceeded to collect 5 straight second place finishes. Charley is best remembered for her tremendous poise and acumen during the European victory in this past year’s Solheim Cup. Hull soundly beat Paula Creamer 5 & 4 in their singles match and then, in very cute fashion, proceeded to ask the Pink Panther for her autograph immediately afterward.
Don’t expect Whan to stop what might be a trend in golf for both men and women. He understands that his Tour needs stars and said stars typically come with rich story lines. What better story line is there than a 14 year-old who wins against professionals who have been playing longer than her entire lifetime?