Golf Digest WomanOctober 10, 2013

What is the true cost of Lydia Ko turning professional?

By Keely Levins

Already a two-time winner on the LPGA Tour at age 16, Lydia Ko has petitioned the tour to waive its minimum age requirement for membership. Ko still has another two years until she hits the LPGA Tour's magic number of 18 -- the age she can turn professional without needing to petition.

Ko is the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history with her win at the CN Canadian Open last year, a title she defended this summer and followed with a second-place finish at the Evian Championship a month later.

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The numbers speak for themselves: She can play on the LPGA Tour. Now it's up to commissioner Mike Whan to decide if she will.

While Whan cannot stop Ko from turning pro (rumors are swirling that she will play her next event as a professional) his decision as to whether or not he's going to allow her to be a member of the LPGA Tour brings forward two important questions: What's gained, and what's lost by turning pro at a young age?

One of the biggest benefits to turning pro for the individual is money, and the fact is Ko could have made a nice pile of cash had she been pro. The win at the CN Canadian Open alone would have been a $300,000 payout. Current LPGA Tour player Nicole Hage is in favor of Ko cashing in while she can.

"She needs to take advantage while she's hot. Golf is so about timing. Right now is her time," Hage said."

"She's dominating."

Another benefit goes beyond Ko as an individual, and extends to the tour itself.

"It's great for the tour to have young players. We've got a wide variety of ages. It's fun to watch, it's fun for the fans," Wendy Doolan, a recently retired LPGA Tour player who won three times on tour, said. "It brings in a whole different fan base when you've got 16, 17, 18-year old girls playing, which is cool for the LPGA Tour."

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Historically, younger players have brought more attention to the LPGA Tour, and that factor is not ignored -- just two years ago the age requirement was waived for Lexi Thompson.

But while the benefits are obvious, there are potential consequences to be considered.

While Michelle Wie turned pro and still went to Stanford, not every young player turning pro can manage both education and a professional career. Some would argue to play golf well, you'd have to forgo college to put necessary focus on practice and allow for travel.

"I don't think that turning pro or not will really hurt or help [Ko's] golf game," Doolan said. "I think it's more about are you looking for an experience to be young and go to college and enjoy that lifestyle, or not?"

Even if Ko tried to balance both college and pro golf, that doesn't mean she'd get the same opportunity to be a college kid. She wouldn't be able to play on a college golf team, and travel for the tour would alter her collegiate experience significantly.

Ko's petition, coupled with Charley Hull's petition in August, makes it seem the LPGA Tour could be facing this decision more and more frequently. While Doolan can see the benefits and the players' skill, she isn't convinced turning pro and being on the LPGA Tour is the best decision.

"For me it just seems like a shame," Doolan said. "They may miss out on being kids."

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