Nostalgic detours by the likes of Tom Watson and Fred Couples aside, youth and exuberance still dominate most of today’s locker room conversations, sometimes for good; sometimes not. Whether it’s Rory McIlroy’s burnout and bad back at the ripe old age of 20, the too-young-to-be-getting-old sagas of Michelle Wie, Rickie Fowler’s pool of promise, or 16-year-old Matteo Manassero’s “youngest ever” records at The Masters, most of the oxygen in the game these days is being sucked up by players who have never swung a wooden club or struck a wound golf ball.
This week was no exception. At the Mojo 6, the non-sanctioned, 16-player women’s invitational in Jamaica, the early buzz wasn’t about the unique format, a series of six-hole, round-robin-type matches, or how top-seed Suzann Pettersen would play after her near-miss at the Kraft Nabisco. The question on everybody’s lips was, “Who’s the kid?”
She is 16-year-old Mariah Stackhouse, a high-school sophomore from Riverdale, Ga., who is the youngest-ever Georgia Women’s Amateur Champion. Mariah made the Sweet 16 in the U.S. Girls Junior last summer, and is having a successful AJGA career. Stackhouse learned she would be playing in the Mojo 6 during a surprise assembly at North Clayton County High School, just south of Atlanta, when her idol, Christina Kim, showed up and invited her. At the time Kim said, “I’m thrilled to surprise Mariah with the invitation. She’s already quite a golfing talent, and is a fantastic representative of the future of women’s golf.”
The thud that followed was a 1,000-pound anvil of pressure falling on a young girl’s shoulders.
When does touting potential and providing opportunity morph into exploitation and pushing a kid too far too fast? It’s a question every parent of an athlete should ask, even though the answer is a moving target. Earl Woods only allowed Tiger to accept one sponsor’s exemption before turning pro, but no one can begrudge the Manassero family the success Matteo has found, although his announcement in the Butler Cabin that he planned to turn pro before turning 17 seemed wince-worthy. Whether it is Wie, Ty Tryon, Alexis Thompson, or the legion of youngsters being touted as the next big thing, the question remains: What’s the rush? Watson and Couples have proved that golf’s expiration date comes after the AARP card. Why hurry a kid into the grist mill of tour golf?
According to Ken Stackhouse, Mariah’s father, you shouldn’t. “Mariah is still a student,” he said without hesitation when asked what was next for a young girl that Mojo 6 organizers hyped in their press release as “the next Tiger Woods.” He went on to say, “I would not allow her to put the time into the game that would be necessary to compete with professional golfers at this level. She’s a high-school student with every intention of going to college.”
Mariah seemed ready for her debut. “I didn’t know what to expect, but now I see that these players do the same things that I do at any other tournament. They show up, get in their practice, put their heads down and do their own things, just like at the tournaments I play now. That made it easy for me.”
In the next breath, though, she sounded like a typical teenager. “The first day I hit balls on the top tier of the range and Suzann Pettersen was who I ended up hitting next to,” Mariah said. “I’ve always been pretty good at focusing on what I was doing and not letting others distract me, but she was very nice. She talked to me and welcomed me. Not only am I playing in a professional event, I’m playing the No. 1 player here, so I can see exactly what I need to do and what I need to work on get to that level.”
She won’t be getting there in the near future if her father has anything to do with it. “If she won one hole out here, it would be more than a success in our minds,” Ken said. When asked how often the public might get a chance to see this version of the next Tiger Woods, he quickly added, “Not often. Maybe one more time, but that’s enough. There is no way I would accept four or five LPGA invitations. It would be too big a distraction, and she still has plenty to learn in the junior ranks.
The junior ranks are filled with kids like Mariah Stackhouse, bundles of talent teeming with potential. Unfortunately, there are too few parents in the sport like Ken.