SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND | Last week, Shona Malcolm, the CEO of the Ladies’ Golf Union said “no” when the 15-year-old prodigy that is Alexis Thompson wanted an invitation to play in Monday’s final qualifying for the Ricoh Women’s British Open. That the teenager had just finished second among the world’s best players in the Evian made no difference.
Malcolm’s explanation was entirely straightforward. When the British was last held at Birkdale they gave an invitation to Michelle Wie who at the time was still an amateur. Wie finished third but such were the complaints from the other players that the LGU decided to switch to the “no-invitation” policy favoured by the R&A for the Open.
There were plenty who labelled the LGU spoilsports and wondered if the jealousy of other players had influenced their decision-making. Pia Nilsson, on the other hand, maintained that officialdom was 100 percent correct. “I have never,” said this leading golf psychologist, “seen any young player benefit from being granted special favours.”
Laura Davies had an entirely different viewpoint. “Alexis,” she said, “is one of the best golfers in the world right now so it would have been nice had she been here. I really don’t know why she’s not. She’s young, but sometimes when you’re playing really well as young as she is, why not give it a go? If she wants to play, she should be allowed.”
Yet the row over whether Thompson should have been at Royal Birkdale was merely a microcosm of the bigger argument. Namely, should a 15-year-old be given special dispensation to join the LPGA Tour, for which the normal age is 18. Should she, so to speak, be allowed to strike while the irons are hot or should she be encouraged to bide her time?
On the day of writing, Thompson had not started to petition the LPGA commissioner but, since a 15-year-old is considered old enough to embark on that process, it cannot be too long before she does. To date, only Morgan Pressel and Aree Song have been accepted before they turned 18. They, though, were 17 rather than 15.
Davies, in keeping with her feelings about the teenager playing in the Ricoh, did not hesitate to suggest that she should be allowed to start up straightaway. “Whatever age you start, it’s going to be a weird life,” she argued.
The 50-year-old Juli Inkster, on the other hand, said that the LPGA would be opening the proverbial can of worms if they embraced someone so young. “Alexis,” said this mother of two, “is maybe mature enough but, if you let her in, you’ll have any number of 15-year-olds clamouring to join. At 15, there should be more to life than golf.
“Youngsters who come out here are surrounded by parents, managers and trainers,” she continued. “They don’t get to hang around with their own age group and they don’t get any space. I’m not sure that it’s right.”
Catriona Matthew, the reigning Ricoh Women’s British Open champion, was still more vociferous. She suspected that the child would be better off at school. “She should be kind of enjoying herself more. It’s not like other sports where you’re maybe done by 25 or 30. You can keep playing until you’re 40. I really don’t see the need for any great rush.”
Thompson is allowed six sponsors’ invites this year and, after the Evian, has three remaining for 2010 – the CN Canadian, the PG Northwest and the Navistar LPGA Classic. Word has it that she is now looking to see what is on offer in Europe. (Sponsors of regular events do not have to concern themselves with the ages of an invitee.)
Paula Creamer, who made the switch at 18 and bypassed what was very probably going to be a Stanford education, said she doubted whether she could have done a Thompson and turned at 15. “Eighteen is the stipulated age and even then things are tough to handle. You have a lot of things thrown your way. It’s a hard life.”
Paul Creamer, Paula’s father, touched on the “emotional pressures” before explaining how everything changed when Paula won the qualifying school as an amateur. “We were still expecting her to go to college but, after that result, she wanted to play professionally.”
“I never,” continued this former fighter pilot, “had any concerns about her golf but there was any amount of soul-searching when it came to the social implications. Education is huge and going to college is a big thing in anyone’s personal growth.”
Paul Creamer’s doubts surfaced again when his daughter needed an operation on her left thumb on 30 March. “We didn’t know,” he said, “how the surgery was going to work out. Any athlete can be one injury away from being finished.”
The thumb recovered enough for Paula to win the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open.
“Looking at the bigger picture,” said the player’s father, “we made the right decision.”
Then, in the manner of one who will always have his fingers ever-so-slightly crossed, he adjusted that to a “so far so good.”