OAKMONT, PENNSYLVANIA | If they have stayed long enough in school to master reading long sentences with three-syllable words, all those teen angels now trying to play professional golf would be wise to plug into the LPGA Tour’s web site and click on to a story about a Hall of Fame player who didn’t turn pro until she was 30, and then went on to win 43 events over a brilliant career.
That would be JoAnne Carner, known as “Big Momma,” who also is believed to be the first female golfer to attend college on a full scholarship when she matriculated at Arizona State. She spent most of her 20s dominating amateur golf, and turned pro mostly because there was nothing left to win at the no-pay-for-play level.
You could almost hear all these little girls giggling in unison just at the thought of doing such an outlandish thing as we begin the second decade of the 21st Century. This week at the U.S. Women’s Open alone, there are 23 young women in the field age 19 and younger, including three 14-year-olds and two 15-year-olds, with many more trying and failing to get here in qualifiers around the country.
How many of them will ever achieve Carner’s legendary status likely won’t be determined in my lifetime, but I’d venture a guess the answer will be: not many.
The latest can’t miss prodigy is Alexis Thompson, who first qualified for the Open as a 12-year-old and this week was already a seasoned Open veteran, participating in her fourth. This time, she’s a professional, having decided to play for a living last month. Her first ever paycheck will come from the USGA because she made the cut Saturday, and was still in contention, only four shots out of the lead.
Plenty of people have been talking about Thompson in recent weeks, including several players who have questioned the wisdom of trying to play on their tour at such a young age. Technically, she is not permitted to become an LPGA member until she turns 18, and if she wants to get in earlier, she will have to petition the commissioner for a waiver.
One LPGA source said Thompson hasn’t done that yet and there is no indication from the player or her family when or even if she might make that request. Here’s hoping new commissioner Mike Whan tells her to wait at least another year or two before asking, though if she plays well on her permitted six sponsor exemptions, he may be forced to cave if only because she’s already a fan favorite judging from her galleries this week at the Open.
Cristie Kerr was asked about Thompson’s decision to forsake amateur golf at such a tender age and said, “I was surprised. I was almost 18 when I turned professional, and that was pretty young back then. I played with a girl who was 14 in a practice round (Monday). They don’t carry themselves like kids any more. People that young, it’s kind of like a business to them. They want to do it to make money and have a career.
“People have asked me what advice I would give (Thompson). I really don’t know. I just wish her well. I’ve said over and over again, I hope her parents are doing right by her, looking out for her best interests.”
Thompson knows people have been talking about her, though she said her now fellow professionals have been exceedingly welcoming, wishing her luck for the week, and for a long and successful career.
“They don’t ever say it to my face,” Thompson said when asked about the criticism. “I don’t take it personal. It was my decision and my parents have been very supportive. I just wanted to take my game to the next level. It would be pretty bold to say it to my face. It was my choice.”
The obvious comparison to Thompson’s situation would be Michelle Wie, who also started playing in big-girl events when she was 12 and 13. She was a fabulous phenom, but now at 20, she’s struggling to find the sort of magic of her early teenage years, when she had seven top-10 finishes in major championships by the time she was 16.
Though she is now No. 10 in the world rankings, Wie shot an 82 in the opening round here, finished her second round with a double bogey and missed the cut at 16-over par. She also hasn’t had a top 10 in a major since 2006.
Asked about Wie this week, Thompson said tersely, “I’m a whole different person.”
Unlike Wie, who attended the same Hawaiian high school that graduated President Obama and is now entering her fourth year at Stanford, Thompson has been home-schooled and seems unlikely to show up on any campus any time soon, if ever. Stacy Lewis, one of her playing partners the first two days at the Open, said that’s truly a shame.
Lewis played college golf for four years at the University of Arkansas before turning pro and said, “I would encourage everyone to go to school. It’s the time to grow up. You can make mistakes; you can be a kid. I don’t know why people would pass that up.”
She is definitely not alone.