College no longer a common path to LPGA stardom

By Randall MellApril 21, 2016, 2:51 am

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.

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).


Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship


Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.