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.

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Cabreras win PNC Father/Son Challenge

By Associated PressDecember 17, 2017, 11:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. closed with a 12-under 60 for a three-shot victory in their debut at the PNC Father/Son Challenge.

The Cabreras opened with a 59 at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and were challenged briefly by the defending champions, David Duval and Nick Karavites, in the scramble format Sunday. The Argentines went out in 30, and they had a two-shot lead with Cabrera's son came within an inch of chipping in for eagle on the final hole.

They finished at 25-under 199 for a three-shot victory over Duval and Karavites, and Bernhard Langer and Jason Langer. The Langer team won in 2014.

Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara tied for fourth at 21 under with Jerry Pate and Wesley Pate.

Cabrera wasn't even in the field until two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and his son, Tom Strange, had to withdraw.

Duval and his stepson went out in 28, but the Cabreras regained control by starting the back nine with back-to-back birdies, and then making birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th. The final birdie allowed them to tie the tournament scoring record.

''This is certain my best week of the year,'' said Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion and 2007 U.S. Open champion at Oakmont. ''To play alongside all the legends ... as well as playing alongside my son, has been the greatest week of the year.''

The popular event is for players who have won a major championship or The Players Championship. It is a scramble format both days.

In some cases, the major champions lean on the power of their sons for the distance. O'Meara said Saturday that his ''little man'' hit it 58 yards by him on the 18th. And on Sunday, Stewart Cink said son Reagan told him after outdriving him on the opening four holes, ''In this tournament I may be your son, but right now I'm your Daddy!''

Jack Nicklaus played with his grandson, G.T. They closed with a 64 and tied for 15th in the field of 20 teams.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.

Cabreras take 1-shot lead in Father/Son

By Associated PressDecember 16, 2017, 11:23 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Two-time major champion Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for a 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the PNC Father-Son Challenge.

Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in this popular 36-hole scramble. His son said he practiced hard for 10 days. What helped put him at ease was watching his father make so many putts.

''We combined very well,'' Cabrera said. ''When I hit a bad shot, he hit a good one. That's the key.''

They had a one-shot lead over Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara, who are playing for the first time. That included a birdie on the last hole, which O'Meara attributed to the strength of his son.

''My little man hit it 58 yards by me on the 18th,'' said O'Meara, the Masters and British Open champion in 1998. ''It's a little easier coming in with a 6-iron.''

Defending champions David Duval and Nick Karavites rallied over the back nine at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club for a 61. They are trying to become the first father-son team to repeat as winners since Bernhard and Stefan Langer in 2006. Larry Nelson won two years in a row in 2007 and 2008, but with different sons.

''I'd imagine we have to break 60 tomorrow to have a chance to win, but hey, stranger things have happened,'' Duval said. ''I've even done it myself.''

Duval shot 59 at the Bob Hope Classic to win in 1999 on his way to reaching No. 1 in the world that year.

Duval and his stepson were tied with Bernhard Langer and 17-year-old Jason Langer, who made two eagles on the last five holes. This Langer tandem won in 2014.

Jack Nicklaus, playing with grandson G.T., opened with a 68.

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Woods' 2018 schedule coming into focus ... or is it?

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 16, 2017, 5:46 pm

Two weeks after his successful return to competition at the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods’ 2018 schedule may be coming into focus.

Golfweek reported on Saturday that Woods hopes to play the Genesis Open in February according to an unidentified source with “direct knowledge of the situation.”

Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg declined to confirm the 14-time major champion would play the event and told GolfChannel.com that Woods – who underwent fusion surgery to his lower back in April – is still formulating his ’18 schedule.

Woods’ foundation is the host organization for the Genesis Open and the event supports the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Genesis Open would be Woods’ first start on the PGA Tour since he missed the cut last January at the Farmers Insurance Open.