July 1, 2007

Youth Group

Brittany Lincicome: The young women are taking charge

Brittany Lincicome: The young women are taking charge

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - Perhaps the oddest thing about Cristie Kerr's victory Sunday at the U.S. Women's Open was that at the age of 29 she was the second oldest player to finish in the top-15 at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club. And she earned that honor only by a year over 30-year-old Mi Hyun Kim. Clearly, women's college golf is becoming like men's college basketball. All the best school-age players are in the pros.

There were 11 college-age players (22 or younger) among the top 21 on the final leader board, including 18-year-old Angela Park, who tied with Lorena Ochoa for second place, two strokes behind Kerr. In fact, half of the top six - Angela Park, In-Bee Park and Jiyai Shin - are 18, the age at which most incoming freshmen find themself. But they are all three professionals and won a combined $505,152 at Pine Needles. Not a bad allowance.

And these were not flash-in-the-pan performances. Three of the top 12 on the Rolex Rankings - No. 6 Morgan Pressel (19), No. 7 Paula Creamer (20) and No. 12 Brittany Lincicome (21) all could be in college if they were not good enough to play professional golf right now. Shin, 18, currently leads the Korean LPGA money list. The youth wave in women's golf is clearly an international phenomenon.

Why are there suddenly so many good, young female players? The simplest answer is that better athletes are getting better instruction at an earlier age. There is also the fact that females mature physically at an earlier age than males and thus can hold their own competitively against adults sooner. And there is the fact that the talent pool in women's golf is not as deep as in the men's game - but that is changing, and very rapidly.

Proof of the phenomenal explosion of talent in women's golf was all over the leader board at the U.S. Open. Teens like Angela Park, In-Bee Park and Shin held their own against Kerr (a 10-time winner on tour), Ochoa (No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings) and Se Ri Pak (a Hall of Famer who has won five majors, including last year's McDonald's LPGA Championship). "Intimidation" appears not to be a word they teach in high school.

Why are there better athletes playing women's golf now? Well, in the United States most of these girls can be considered title IX babies. They are the first generation of children whose mothers played sports in college in significant numbers. But globally, they are all Tiger Babies. Well before his wife Elin gave birth to Sam Alexis, Tiger Woods was spawning a generation of golfers.

Think about it: Those players who are 18, 19 and 20 years old were 7, 8 and 9 when Woods turned pro in 1996. When they were looking for athletic heroes they found one of the most recognizable athletes in the world to be a golfer. Not only was he a golfer but he was young, hip, handsome, a minority in a white sport, and he looked like an athlete. He was fit.

Tiger did two things to make kids want to be golfers. He made the game cool, and he made it possible to get rich playing the game. Even if not everyone can get the tens of millions in endorsement deals Woods gets, those with skill can have a shot at the prize money that has exploded significantly on all the tours of the world in the Tiger Woods Era.

The result is a double-edge sword. The LPGA has more young talent than at any point in its history. What this means is that, as in boys basketball, the best of the best are turning pro right out of high school or playing one or two years in college before playing for pay. That doesn't mean there won't always be late bloomers who will use four years of college to get ready for the pros, but from here forward it will happen about as often in women's golf as it does in men's basketball - not often.

This explosion of young talent in women's golf got a tremendous boost when Paula Creamer, who skipped college, won twice on the LPGA Tour as an 18-year-old in 2005. That gave others the confidence they, too, could play with the big girls. Pressel's victory this year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship made her, at 18, the youngest ever to win a major. That will further fuel the pipeline to the pros.

So here we are 750 words into a column about young phenoms in women's golf and we have yet to type the words "Michelle Wie." Certainly, the success she had playing against the women until about a year ago, and the lucrative endorsement deals she signed, will motivate more teens to turn pro. In that sense, she is a victim of her own success. She is seemingly on the verge of being drown in numbers.

With every page that falls from the daily calendar Wie loses a little bit of her uniqueness. The public now realizes there is more than one great young female player out there. They are everywhere. All you have to do is look at the Pine Needles scoreboard to see that. And on Oct. 11, her birthday, Wie will be not a 14 year old who stands alone but an 18 year old who stands among a score of other teens capable of winning an LPGA tournament.

Wie heads off to Stanford in September, but as a professional she won't be playing college golf. This last school year was supposed to be Pressel's freshman year at Duke and Brittany Lang's senior year. Both have LPGA tour cards instead. Still, the Blue Devils won their third NCAA title in a row and fourth in six years.

What that says is that Duke is the best of the college ranks. But if you want to see the best college-age women play golf, watch the LPGA. Just like if you want to see the best college-age men play basketball, watch the NBA. Seeing Angela Park, Morgan Pressel and Paul Creamer do what they do is no more surprising that seeing LeBron James do what he does. And it's just as much fun. And there is more of it - much more of it - to come. Teenage champions will become a regular thing in women's golf.