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Whan has no choice but to waive age-restriction clause for Ko

Lydia Ko
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How do you deny Lydia Ko?

How do you say no to granting her a waiver of the LPGA’s rule requiring members to be at least 18 after all she has proven?

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan probably will grant a waiver to the New Zealand teen phenom now that she has petitioned, but he won’t do it lightly. As winner of the CN Canadian Women’s Open in August, Ko earned the right to claim LPGA membership, but at 16, she needs that waiver before she can do so.

Ko is planning to play the LPGA’s season finale, the CME Group Titleholders, as a pro next month, though she may make her professional debut a week before that, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. Whether she’s granted LPGA membership or not, Ko is going to be playing tour events as a pro from now on.

The question doesn’t seem to be whether Whan will grant the waiver, but when he should make it effective. Should membership be granted immediately? Or deferred until the start of next season? Or deferred until she turns 17 on April 24? That last option might be problematic for the family with the 2014 LPGA season getting such a big start in Australia and Asia, that part of the world Ko calls home.

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As easy as this decision seems, Whan won’t rubber-stamp Ko’s petition. He is the father of three teenage sons. He sees the long view, because as deserving as Ko is, there’s more to his decision. There is more to ask than whether Ko is ready. There are questions about ramifications. About who comes next. About what messages are sent by granting another waiver to another 16-year-old. Lexi Thompson was also 16 when she got a waiver two seasons ago.

Before Ko and Thompson came along, Morgan Pressel, Aree Song and Jessica Korda got waivers, but they were all 17 and nearing their 18th birthdays. You can see what’s happening. You can see the petitions coming from younger prodigies now. Last year, Ariya Jutanugarn asked for a waiver when she was 16.

How many other 16-year-olds are coming next? And when will the next 15-year-old win?

Whan doesn’t want to be the commissioner who validated a new blueprint for teens wanting to play professional golf.

It’s a real dilemma for him.

Almost three years ago, back when Thompson was still 15, I asked Whan if he feared a new wave of teen phenoms will come knocking on the LPGA’s door. This was back after Thompson turned pro, but nine months before she won the Navistar Classic. This was back when Whan denied Thompson’s petition for 12 sponsor invites for the 2011 season, a total double what the tour normally allows non-members.

“At the real core of it, I didn’t think I wanted to be the commissioner that created a new pathway to the LPGA that made young girls around the world think that as a freshman or sophomore in high school that they have a big decision to make,” Whan told at the time. “I didn’t want to create this worldwide phenomenon where 14 year-olds are sitting in their living room and thinking, `High school or pro?’ It didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”

After Thompson won late in 2011, Whan granted her a waiver, though it was deferred until the start of the next season. He did so knowing what might follow.

“I respect the fact that Lexi is on a unique plane, performance-wise,” Whan said then. “I also know there’s another Lexi coming down the road in another couple years, but the standard’s going to be pretty high.”

So that’s where we are. Ko is that next player coming down the road, and she has more than met Whan’s high standard.

She’s another extraordinary exception to the rule.

That will be Whan’s way of holding back the floodgates, of tempering blueprints. Ko didn’t just meet the standard. She elevated it.

There’s the obvious evidence of why Ko deserves LPGA membership. She has won a pair of LPGA titles among her four professional victories. In 11 LPGA starts as an amateur this season, she left nearly a million dollars on the table. She just finished runner-up to Suzann Pettersen at the Evian Championship, a major. She is No. 5 in the Rolex world rankings.

Those are ridiculously compelling reasons to grant a waiver, but there’s more than performance in question here, and that’s what actually makes this easier for Whan.

Ko and her family showed remarkable patience and restraint through Lydia’s amateur run of success. They could have pushed to claim membership when she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open as a 15-year-old. They could have pushed for it after she won it again this year. They could have insisted she turn pro at any time this year to start collecting paychecks.

The family treaded carefully, though, planned cautiously, even as Lydia quietly began to lobby them to let her turn pro.

In her 11 LPGA starts this year, Ko got to show LPGA leadership and players a level of professional behavior (outside collecting paychecks) and maturity. That’s a lot of starts, a lot of exposure to all kinds of situations. It’s a lot of time to allow LPGA brass to interact with her and observe her.

Ko is a smart, level-headed young woman. She handles herself beautifully, without a hint of petulance or entitlement. Her family ought to get a load of credit for that. Her mother, Tina, has been at her side every step of the way. Tina, her husband and their team have guided this prodigy so skillfully.

Ko sets a standard that requires something extraordinary for the next 16-year-old prodigy to meet.

That’s why Ko’s petition won’t be denied. Whan doesn't have to lower the bar, not with Ko raising it.