MASSACHUSETTS | Golf has a remarkable way of regenerating its greatest players, and that is always a fun process to watch. Hogan and Nelson gave way to Arnold Palmer, who shared and then ceded the spot to Nicklaus. Tom Watson soon arose, and in time, he took over for Jack. Of course, Tiger came along, and while no one would be so foolish as to say he is done, reasonable people believe he will never dominate as he once did, in part because his personal baggage is now so heavy and his competition so deep. So they speculate about which of the young guns playing today will eventually assume his mantel. Rory McIlroy, perhaps. Or Anthony Kim. Maybe Rickie Fowler.
The same thing is happening with the ladies, what with the departure a couple years back of long-reigning queen, Annika, and then this season’s surprising retirement of heiress apparent, Lorena Ochoa. Some say the obvious successor has already arrived, in the form of Paula Creamer. To be sure, she is a delightful player and attractive personality. But she has been injured so much recently that she is all but forgotten. Michele Wie has long looked like she was next in line to the throne. But the golf world seems over her, tired of waiting for her official coronation, and ready to move on to the next generation. It’s as if she’s become Prince Charles, and the games’ subjects want Wills.
Some might consider that a problem for the women. But to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, a little regeneration every now and then is a good thing. Especially when you consider some of the young amateurs teeing it up today. The brightest of that bunch played last weekend in the 36th Curtis Cup at the Essex County Club on Boston’s North Shore. And they’ve demonstrated that the talent pool on both sides of the pond is very strong, indeed. In fact, one or two of them might even turn out to be great enough to fill the void Annika and Lorena have left.
Let’s start with 15-year-old Alexis Thompson. She was the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion and has already played in three U.S. Women’s Opens, the first of which she qualified for when she was only 12. Thompson also has qualified for the 2010 Open, to be played at Oakmont. Early this week, she will officially annunce that she is exiting the amateur ranks and will make her pro debut this weekend at the ShopRite LPGA Classic down the road in Galloway, N.J.
And she has had some kind of Curtis Cup. Through two days, the 5-11 Florida resident held a 3-0-1 record and was routinely outdriving her opponents by 30 yards. At the same time, Thompson has shown she knows how to use her putter; she began Saturday’s fourball match with birdies on the first three holes, and five of the first eight, initiating a Team USA rout that saw it win all six matches that day.
Thompson’s playing partner for her two winning matches Saturday was another teen sensation, 17-year-old Jessica Korda. And the expectation is that she will also be out on Tour before too long. The daughter of former professional tennis champion Petr Korda of the Czech Republic, Jessica was 13 when she became the youngest player to make a cut on the Ladies European Tour. She also made the cut at the past two U.S. Women’s Opens, tying for 19th in 2008 and shooting the only sub-par round the final day. And this past January, Korda won the prestigious SALLY (the Women’s South Atlantic Amateur) by four strokes.
Another American golfer with plenty of game here – and plenty of potential as a pro – is Jennifer Song. The 20-year-old University of Southern California student showed how well she could play when she reeled off nine birdies in just 16 holes during her Saturday morning fourball match with partner Cydney Clanton, beating the heralded Maguire twins (more on them later) 3 and 2. But that performance is only the latest example of how good Song is. After all, she won both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in 2009, becoming only the second woman in history to capture two USGA titles in the same year.
Then, there is Hawaiian Kimberly Kim, the only Curtis Cup veteran on this year’s U.S. squad and the holder of a 3-1 record from the 2008 match on the Old Course in St. Andrews. She is not only the youngest winner ever of the U.S. Women’s Amateur, having taken the 2006 championship when she was 14, but also a runner-up in three other USGA events – twice at the Women’s Publinx and once at the Girls’ Junior. Kim has also qualified for – and played in – four U.S. Women’s Opens.
Of course, the Yanks have not cornered the market on girl golf prodigies, and perhaps the most impressive players on the GB&I team are the 15-year-old Irish Maguire twins, Lisa and Leona. They are the youngest ever to represent Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup, which was first played in 1932. And they show talent and poise well beyond their years. Leona has twice won the French Under-21 Open, in 2009 and 2010, and in 2008 beat her sister in the final of the Irish Ladies Close Championship. A year later, Lisa got some measure of revenge by taking that title herself, and also captured the 2009 Irish Open Amateur Stroke Play. Blue-eyed and freckled-faced, the twins have represented Europe on the Junior Solheim Cup and the Junior Ryder Cup. And it likely won’t be long before they compete at the pro level.
Yes, the regeneration of women’s golf is happening, slowly but surely. And the next generation is going to be a good one.