Is the LPGA Tour Becoming Too Young?

There is a tremendous youth movement right now on the LPGA Tour, which depending on point of view, could be a good or bad thing for the game. On one hand, this influx of young talent is bringing the LPGA Tour to unprecedented heights. Never before, in the history of the women’s game, has it been so marketable. In fact, in just her second year on board, Commissioner Carol Bivens has raised the ante on sponsoring a Tour Event, and has major corporations, who’ve never aligned themselves with women’s golf before, standing in line to host a golf tournament. But on the other hand, with many of their marquee players under the age of 21, the LPGA Tour may soon find themselves in a position much like professional tennis in the 1980’s — ruled by egotistical brats. And of course, if that does come to fruition; it wouldn’t take long before the LPGA Tour, like women’s tennis in the mid 80’s, started to lose popularity. Lets look at the pros and cons of this debate and see if there is a logical answer.

First, the reasons why teenagers should be allowed access to play. Some think the LPGA should allow anyone good enough to play on the Tour unfettered access. It shouldn’t matter if they are 15 or 45. If they have the skills to compete – they should be allowed to play. After all, this access has brought the tour some much-needed excitement over the last few years, with players such as Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis. And this young trend is continuing internationally as well, with Europe, South Korea and Australia starting to produce some world-class teenagers. In fact, it was just announced last week, that 18-year-old South African, Ashleigh Simon, would make her LPGA debut this week at the Jamie Farr Classic. So why shouldn’t these young girls play? They bring a fresh approach to the game, as well as a new fan base. This is what the sponsors are looking for. This is why they invite Michelle Wie to their events. They understand no matter what drama may ensue from Michelle being there — they will sell more tickets and hence get more exposure for their brand.

Now, let’s talk about a few reasons why teenagers should wait to play the LPGA Tour. These young girls, no matter their level of golf game, do not have the maturity to deal with all that has been thrust upon them. Do we really think Michelle Wie would behave at age 21 — the way she has the last six month? Is it possible that Natalie Gulbis would have won by now if she had finished college and not spent ages 18-22 posing for calendars? Who knows for sure – but I will say this. I was standing on the putting green at the U.S. Open a couple weeks ago when Patty Sheehan walked over to talk with one of the caddies. Now, Patty Sheehan is a legend. Owner of one of the best golf swings in the history of golf and one of the reason why girls like Michelle Wie get to play for so much money and attention. But while I was there, which was for at least 30 minutes, no current player went over to say hello. In fact, my guess is, very few of the 30 or so girls practicing on the Pine Needles putting green, even knew who Patty Sheehan was. To me, this is where the “disconnect” begins. There are the old school LPGA Tour players and there are the new age girls. There is no connection or sense of history between them.

So, is this a problem or just evolution? I cannot say for sure — but I see potential problems on the horizon for the LPGA Tour, and only for that one reason. The rest of the brand is incredible — pretty girls playing wonderful golf — plus a smart businesswoman leading the way. I think the only thing that can stop them is the “Diva” factor. And for the first time, since I’ve been following and traveling with the LPGA Tour, I’m starting to worry about the attitudes of the girls who are supposed to be the “future.” To me, it only makes sense, as it is almost impossible to grow up under so much scrutiny. I have watched my four sisters handle puberty and have coached a number of top level teenage girls — so I’m speaking from a little experience. That is a tough time in a young woman’s life, as they struggle to find an identity and a place in the world. I’ve witnessed teenage girls on top of the world one-minute and completely depressed the next — only because someone commented on their sweater and how it made them look. So you can imagine how difficult it must be for Michelle Wie, who never had bad press in her life, all of a sudden criticized at every turn. During your high school years, imagine everyone in school talking about you and all the things you were doing wrong. Not exactly confidence instilling, is it? Michelle is going through that now, except she gets to read about it in every national newspaper. I know, I know — she has millions. It’s the price you pay. But millions of dollars doesn’t make a teenage mind mature any quicker. She is still just a high school recent high school graduate. Remember how mature you were at that age? Thankfully, I’ve repressed all my teenage memories.

I think to stave off this potential problem, the LPGA Tour should implement a rule. A teenager should only be allowed 3 exemptions into LPGA Events until they’re 18. If they qualify for a tournament (such as the U.S. Open) — they can play — but no Tour membership and no unlimited exemptions. From ages 18-21, they can receive 5 exemptions per year and qualify for others if so desired. This number of events would be a perfect summer schedule for a top college player. Then, at age 21, all girls would be eligible for full membership on Tour with access to an unlimited number of tournaments. The only exception I would make is — if during her teenage years, a girl actually wins a tournament — she could petition for early membership. But that’s it! No more kids acting like adults. If they don’t want to go to school — that’s okay — they can go play the Futures Tour. They can spend a couple years learning how to travel and how to manage their time. This would also make them much more appreciative of the luxuries they take for granted on the LPGA Tour.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression — I am a huge fan of the LPGA Tour. And I’m a huge fan of all these incredibly talented young women. Because of that, I want to put them in the best position to succeed. I want the LPGA Tour to succeed. I don’t want their success to follow a bell curve, which I think it’s doing now. They are on the way up — but destined for a fall in about 5-10 years. I would rather they have consistent growth with classy young women — who make solid role models for all juniors that idolize them.

So, what do you think? Is the LPGA Tour getting too young? Or do you like what you’re seeing now?

Oh, and we may have to have this conversation about the PGA Tour soon as well. 16 year old Tad Fujikawa just announced he is going pro. Stay tuned.

One Response to “Is the LPGA Tour Becoming Too Young?”

  1. Oneunder says:

    It is the money. Michelle Wie last year signed a huge $$ deal with Nike at 16. Would she have gotten that deal this year ? Suppose she never comes back from her wrist injury ? Not only would last year been missed opportunites for the young teen but for Nike and the LPGA as well. I agree with you about the difficulty presented by growing up in the spotlight but I think there are measures that could be taken other than turning off the light.

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