Young Golf Talent Facing Tough Decisions

Many Forego College Experience To Turn Pro Early

Amanda Blumenherst could  have turned pro after high school, but the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident wanted to have a four-year college experience at Duke University, where she was a three-time player of the year and led the Blue Devils to a pair of NCAA Division I team championships. (John Mummert/USGA)
By Stuart Hall
July 6, 2010

Oakmont, Pa. – Jenny Shin was introduced to a man standing behind the ropes cordoning off the 18th green on Monday at Oakmont Country Club. Noticing that Shin was without a sponsored tour bag and figuring she was an amateur, the man asked where Shin attended college.

Just graduated from high school, Shin said, which prompted a logical follow-up about where she would attend college. No college, Shin replied, she had turned professional earlier this year.

Shin is 17.

“I knew during my sophomore year [in high school] that I was going to go to college, for sure. I worked hard my sophomore year and had a really high [grade-point average],” said Shin, who listed Stanford and the University of Southern California on her short list of college choices.

A successful summer of amateur golf in 2008, prior to her junior year, began to sway the thought process. Shin played in her first U.S. Women’s Open and missed the cut by a stroke; she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur Championship – an event she had already won in 2006 at age 13; and she won the American Junior Golf Association’s Heather Farr Classic and earned AJGA All-America honors.

“I began to think if I was going to be out here anyway, then why not start getting the experience,” said Shin, who in eight Duramed Futures Tour starts this season has made seven cuts, including ties for eighth and for second in her last two starts, and earned $14,889.

Shin is not an anomaly, but rather among a growing group of players who are eschewing college to turn pro in a rush for riches.

The Young and the Restless

Forty-nine players in this week’s 156-player U.S. Women’s Open field are age 21 or younger, and 23 are still in their teens. Of the 49, 22 have played in college, and that includes players such as Mina Harigae, 20, who attended Duke University in the fall of 2009 and turned pro after her first semester. There are, though, a handful of players – including 14-year-olds Yueer Feng of the People’s Republic of China, Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand and Gabriella Then of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. – not yet of college age.

Alexis Thompson, 15, is representative of the latest teen phenoms who are turning professional even before receiving their high school diplomas.

Thompson, like Shin, is of the “why wait” belief with regard to turning professional. Based on performance, Thompson makes a strong argument. 

At age 12, Thompson became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open; at 13, she became the second-youngest player to win a U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship; and in June, Thompson closed her amateur career with a 4-0-1 record in the USA’s Curtis Cup victory over Great Britain and Ireland at Essex County Club.

For Thompson, there was little left to accomplish in the amateur arena save for perhaps a U.S. Women’s Amateur championship. She's also had a glimpse of tour life with older brother Nicholas a member of the PGA Tour.

“I pretty much felt good about my game, thought I could compete out here, and just wanted to take my game to the next level,” said Thompson, who admitted her decision was solidified by her play in 2009, which included a T-21 at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and T-34 at the U.S. Women’s Open.

Just declaring professional status, though, does not mean a free ticket to the LPGA Tour.

The LPGA Tour’s age minimum is 18, so players who have yet to hit that birthday must petition to the commissioner to attend qualifying school. Only Aree Song (2003) and Morgan Pressel (2005) have been successful in their attempts. The minimum age to play regularly on the Duramed Futures Tour is 17.

Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA Tour’s director of media relations, estimated that the number of players who have submitted petitions is fewer than a dozen.

“I think the trend is that we’re going to have more players who will petition,” said Daly-Donofrio, citing Thompson and Jessica Korda, 17, of Bradenton, Fla., as two likely players to test the waters of LPGA Tour Qualifying School prior to turning 18.

This recent trend disturbs Carole Semple Thompson, the definitive ambassador of women’s amateur golf and the last U.S. Women’s Amateur champion not to turn professional (1973). Thompson is a seven-time USGA champion and a record 12-time Curtis Cup member who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame two years ago.

“I don’t like the trend,” she said. “I think it’s going to do nothing but get worse. The high school players are going to think they are good enough to go out on the tour. The tour is going to be faced with maybe taking some younger players.

“I just think these kids are not mature. They may think they are mature, but they need a couple of years to have fun with their friends. To me they are looking at a hard life because so few of them will be superstars.”

Aree Song, 24, the youngest-ever U.S. Girls Junior champion (1999) whose amateur career ran nearly parallel to Thompson’s, is a good example. As a 13-year-old amateur she played in Sunday’s final group at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and tied for 10th.

Between 2004 and ’07, Song played 94 LPGA events, recording just three top-three and nine top-10 finishes. Her best season was 2004 when she earned $426,327. Since 2008, Song has been sidelined by injuries and has earned $18,521 in 13 starts.

In addition to Pressel, Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr opted out of the college route to pursue professional careers. Creamer and Kerr were both 18 when they made their respective decisions, but even Kerr raises a questioning eyebrow to such an early rush.

I was surprised at her turning pro so young,” said Kerr of Alexis Thompson, who shares the same instructor as Kerr (Jim McLean). “You know, I was almost 18 when I turned professional, and that was pretty young back then.

I played with a girl who was 14 (Feng) in the practice round [Monday]. They don't carry themselves like kids anymore. People who are that young, it's kind of like a business to them. You know, if they're turning professional now, they view it as a business. They want to do it to make money and have a career.”

Kerr, a member of the 1996 USA Curtis Cup Team, is considered one of the success stories, but it took her six years to achieve her first win at the 2002 Longs Drugs Challenge. Since then Kerr has added 13 LPGA victories, including two majors – the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open and last month’s 12-stroke romp at the LPGA Championship – and competed on five U.S. Solheim Cup teams.

The Old College Try

Stacy Lewis, 25, never considered turning pro coming out of high school in The Woodlands, Texas. She did not even entertain the thought until after her sophomore season at the University of Arkansas in 2006.

That summer she won the Harder Hall Invitational, the Western Amateur and was a semifinalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Lewis followed up by winning the 2007 NCAA Division I Championship the next spring and posting an unprecedented 5-0-0 record on the victorious 2008 USA Curtis Cup Team.

“It wasn’t until my college coach came up to me and said ‘You may just have a pro future in this game. Only then did I think, ‘OK, maybe I do,’ ” said Lewis, who tied for third in her professional debut at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen C.C.

Ninety-two players in the field this week have attended college. Two-time Women’s Open champion Juli Inkster, 50, who played four years at San Jose State, thinks only good can come from such a stay.

“Every kid should be on their own for at least a year to make their own decisions to learn how to be on their own,” said Inkster, the mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 20, and winner of three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur titles from 1980-82. “For some kids, they don’t even want to go to college, and that’s their own prerogative, but I just think kids should be on their own for a year to grow socially and mature and be ready to make your own decision.”

Alison Walshe, 24, a University of Arizona grad, was not given an option.

“I definitely wanted to go to college. But even if I didn’t, I had no choice because my parents would have killed me,” joked Walshe, a Westford, Mass., resident. “They say some of the best years of your life are when you are in college. And that’s absolutely true. I could not have imagined leaving early.”

Walshe admitted there was the occasional case of “what if…” when she saw someone she competed against at the amateur or collegiate level turning pro early and succeeding. But the thought was fleeting.

Walshe, who has played on the Duramed Futures, LPGA and Ladies European Tour since turning pro in 2009, would not trade the experience of being a three-time All-American with 10 individual wins and a member of the victorious 2008 USA Curtis Cup Team for, say, a T-13 and a $25,000 payday on tour.

“You just never get that chance back,” she said.

Amanda Blumenherst, 23, was another player who could have turned her back on college for the riches of tour play, but she considers her days at Duke University priceless. From the day she set foot on the Durham, N.C., campus in 2005 until graduation in May 2009, Blumenherst was one of the most decorated amateurs of any era.

The list of accomplishments included being a two-time victorious USA Curtis Cup Team member, a U.S. Women’s Amateur champion (2008) and runner-up (2007), a three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, a member of consecutive NCAA Division I team champions (2006 and 2007), and winner of the Edith Cumming Award, which is awarded for the highest GPA of NCAA Academic All-Americans in 2006.

It was always my goal and was my path to go four years to school and graduate and play all four years of college golf and then play professional golf,” she said. “And that was my choice. But a lot of girls these days aren’t finishing college. It’s their prerogative. It’s their choice. But I am so glad I chose the path I did.”

During those same four years, Creamer, three months older than Blumenherst, was LPGA Rookie of the Year, a member of two victorious U.S. Solheim Cup teams, an eight-time tour winner and a millionaire six times over.

Lewis believes a level of maturity is lost without the collegiate experience. And she sees examples of it every week on tour.

“You can just tell,” she said. “You can see it in their social interaction, how they deal with sponsors, just about everything. There is a level of growing up they miss.”

Jennifer Johnson, 18, could have passed on college, but attended Arizona State University this past year. Recently, Johnson announced plans to turn pro after this Open. The college experience was good, she said, but there was a desire to spend more time on her game.

Shin understands Johnson’s decision, but it was one she was warned about if she decided to play at the college level.

“I spoke to several of my friends who have gone to college and then left early,” Shin said. “They said to leave early was not fair. Not fair to the team or the coaches.”

As Creamer succinctly explains, the goal remains the same.

Everybody's different,” she said. “They have their own different routes and different types of style to get where they want to go.”

Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.


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