DALY CITY, Calif. – Juli Inkster can’t help marveling looking down the practice range at the Swinging Skirts Classic this week.
The LPGA has never looked so young.
The average age of the nine winners this year is 20 years old.
“That’s unbelievable,” Inkster says.
The last three LPGA events have been won by teenagers, and the average age of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings is 23 years old.
“Amazing,” Inkster says.
Inkster, 55, a hall of famer, marvels at how 17- and 18-year-olds know more about how to play the game than she did in her early 20s.
“Absolutely,” Inkster said. “You see so much discipline, such disciplined games. And the patience they have, the course management, and the swings. It’s a different game, a different era. We grew up with no coaches, no video. We just went out and played. I have to say, when I came out on tour, you could shoot 74 or 75 and still win. Now, you can’t do that. You have to put four good rounds together to win.”
Over the last five years, the LPGA has watched players 15, 16 and 17 years old win titles. In 2011, Lexi Thompson became the youngest winner of an LPGA event at 16. A year later, Lydia Ko topped her, winning at 15 and then winning again a year later at 16. Brooke Henderson won at 17 last year.
Inkster sees teenagers joining the tour who are more experienced playing under pressure against elite competition than ever before. These youngsters hit the LPGA having learned lessons most players in the past didn’t learn until they were hardened veterans.
“You look at Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, In Gee Chun, they’ve played really competitive golf since they were 13 and 14 years old, high-end competition as juniors, in world tournaments,” Inkster said. “They’ve traveled all around the world, developing their games, getting ready for this opportunity. I didn’t play out of state until I was 18.”
Inkster has watched juniors become like closet pros. They travel like pros. They work with coaches and trainers like pros. They meet with sports psychologists and nutritionists like pros. They do everything pros do, except they play for trophies instead of money.
Here’s something else that has changed dramatically since Inkster joined the tour. The game’s best players aren’t the product of the best college programs anymore. The best players are turning pro at 17 and 18 now, some before leaving high school, especially internationally.
“When I came out here, we all went to college,” Inkster said.
None of the nine winners this year played collegiately. In fact, over the last 44 LPGA events staged, Anna Nordqvist and Kris Tamulis are the only winners who played collegiately.
Stacy Lewis is the only player among the top 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings who played in college.
The winners of the last seven major championships did not play collegiately. Since 2010, there have been 28 major championships staged. Lewis and Mo Martin are the only winners of majors in that run who played college golf. If you’re wondering, Inbee Park left UNLV two days after enrolling.
Megan Khang, 18, considered going to Wake Forest, but she told the school she wanted to take a year off and try making it through LPGA Q-School. Khang made it through in her first try in December and is off to an excellent start to her pro career. She tied for 11th in her LPGA debut at the Pure Silk Bahamas, tied for fourth at the JTBC Founders Cup and tied for seventh last week at the Lotte Championship.
“I was definitely thinking about going to college,” Khang said. “I played with Brooke Henderson growing up, and watching her win definitely inspired me. Knowing Lydia is only a few months older than I am, and that she’s already No. 1 in the world, that definitely inspired me, too. I felt like if I went to college, I’d be falling behind. I actually feel like I’m a little behind everyone right now, but I’m trying to speed up the process the best I can.”
Mic Potter, the head coach of the University of Alabama women’s golf team, says he isn’t surprised so many young LPGA players are succeeding so early because of the advanced coaching, training and elite tournament experience available. He also says he doesn’t pretend college is for the uniquely talented teens mature enough to succeed right away.
“When we recruit, if someone is good enough to play professionally and make a really comfortable living and win, we tell them that,” Potter said. “Unless you’re genuinely interested in a specific area of study, and you want to get a degree, developmentally, you are better off playing professionally. But if you’re not, our main recruiting point is that you can come and train, for virtually nothing, and when you do come out, you can be ready to play the tour. We also tell prospects that when they are ready to play professionally, to make money, we will be the first ones to tell them they should turn pro.”
Potter, though, worries about young players who aren’t ready but think they are.
“The downside is these young girls aren’t getting the social, college experience that might be good for them,” Potter said. “And it’s a double-edged sword. If you turn pro, and you don’t develop at the rate you thought you were going to develop, there really is nothing for you to fall back on.”
Tamulis shook her head surveying all the youth around her Wednesday on the practice green at Lake Merced Golf Club. Every single winner on tour this year turned pro while still a teenager.
“I’m 35, and I feel old,” said Tamulis, a Florida State graduate. “I feel like I’m getting older and everyone else is getting younger. They come on tour, and they’re so fit and so strong. You have to do so much to keep up with them.
“I feel like I’m leaps and bounds from where I was as a player 10 years ago, but I see girls coming out on tour now who are already where I’m at.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the game’s dominant stars at least played collegiately. Lorena Ochoa played two years at Arizona. So did Annika Sorenstam.
As a two-time major champion, a two-time Rolex Player of the Year, Stacy Lewis is the exception to the rule now as a graduate of the University of Arkansas. She loved the college game. She still does, so much so that she’s a volunteer assistant at her alma mater.
“The LPGA getting younger, it has a huge effect on the college game,” Lewis said. “If affects how coaches recruit, who they recruit.”
Lewis took note that the college ranks lost yet another top recruit this week with reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Hannah O’Sullivan announcing she is forgoing a scholarship offer from USC. O’Sullivan, 17, plans to play LPGA Q-School in the fall as an amateur. She became the youngest winner of a Symetra Tour event as a 16-year-old last year.
While Lewis understands the dilemma parents of gifted junior golfers face, she also appreciated the message Se Ri Pak delivered when Pak announced her retirement at 38 last month. Pak said she cherished what golf gave her, but she also regretted what she deprived herself of by being so devoted to it. She said the game left her feeling incomplete as a person.
“Life not all about winning, losing, practicing and then winning, losing, practicing,” Pak said. “It’s balance, feeling right balance. It’s practicing life. I’m still developing myself, and I’m so far behind.”
So Yeon Ryu is a rare phenomenon in Korean golf, where most Korean LPGA players turn pro as teenagers. Ryu won the U.S. Women’s Open in 2011 while attending Yonsei University. She wasn’t studying as a correspondent student, either. She was attending classes while playing the Korean LPGA Tour.
“Se Ri always told me, `Golf can’t be your whole life,’” Ryu said. “She said it’s part of your life, but you can’t let it be your whole life. I think it’s an important message to all Korean golfers, because not many have a good balance. For too many, it’s all about golf, always thinking about golf. We’re only going to play golf for about 20 years. When we leave, we need to know what’s outside golf for us.”
Lewis, 31, hates seeing young players miss out on the college experience.
“It’s disappointing to me,” Lewis said. “I think they’re missing out on a really cool time in their life. They’re missing out on kind of still being a kid and having fun, from being 17 and 18 and going to college, living on their own and learning how to do that. All of a sudden, they’re out here on tour. This is their job, they’re professionals. They don’t get to be the kids they are.
“Will these girls be done at 30? Will they be retiring at 28? Who knows? Only time will tell, but the thing is, there aren’t going to be many Lydia Kos coming along. Parents see Lydia, and they think, `My kid can do that,’ but what Lydia is doing, nobody’s ever going to do that again, I don’t think.”
Tamulis wouldn’t trade her years at Florida State.
“College is the best time of your life,” Tamulis said. “I never hear anyone say they hated their college years. I think girls are missing the boat, but then I wasn’t as good as some of these girls coming out on tour now. I didn’t have the opportunity they have.”
Like Lewis, Inkster wonders if young phenoms will have the same passion for the game after 10 years on tour. But Inkster doesn’t wonder whether the future is going to keep delivering young talent the way it is today.
“They’re all coming now, and they’re just going to get better and better,” Inkster said.