2005: Women’s recruiting becomes pro-active

The landscape of women’s college golf is changing so quickly, you’d better not blink.

Just try and keep up:

4In-Bee Park was in. Then she was out. Now she’s in again – at UNLV.

4Morgan Pressel bled Duke blue until that life-altering week at Cherry Hills. No Durham dining halls in her future.

4Julieta Granada had coaches chasing her around the country well past last year’s early signing period. She made a verbal commitment to the University of Arizona in December, got a taste of the LPGA in March and did an about-face in June. She played the Futures Tour, finished seventh in earnings and has a date set in December at the LPGA Qualifying School finals.

This ain’t your mama’s recruiting game, or for that matter, even your older sister’s. The stakes are high, the commitments are low and nothing is guaranteed.

To put the phenomenon in perspective, take a look at the list of recent U.S. Girls’ Junior champions. Of the last seven, only Lisa Ferrero (2000) went to college (Texas).

Aree Song (1999) turned professional and became the first player to join the LPGA at age 17. Nicole Perrot (2001), another current LPGA player, also skipped college, as did Futures Tour players Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff (’03) and Granada (’04).

Park (’02) tried to follow in Song’s footsteps but recently was turned down by LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw. The high school senior since has expressed a desire to attend UNLV in 2006, but a lot can happen in a year.

Meanwhile, the reigning Girls’ Junior champion, In-Kyung Kim, has made it clear that college isn’t in her cards.

And those are just the players with their names on the trophy.

“I think it’s on a lot of girls’ minds,” said Esther Choe, a top recruit for the high school class of 2007. “Seeing a lot of young people play well (on the LPGA), we know we can compete.”

Some starry-eyed teens are Michelle Wie wannabes. Others suffer from a bad case of Paula Creamer Cash Fever.

And a select few are simply better than many LPGA veterans.

Regardless of their motives, the growing trend for today’s young stars is to either leap directly to the pros or give it the old college try for one or two years.

Plan A deprives the college game of top recruits and keeps coaches engaged in an annual guessing game. Plan B, thanks to the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rate (APR), can wreak havoc on programs that make it a habit of losing players early.

Under the APR rule, which takes effect this fall, schools must have a score of 925 (equivalent to a graduation rate of 50 percent) to avoid losing a full scholarship for one year. The APR rate is based on the number of academically eligible student-athletes on each team who return to campus full time.

Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen figured Louise Stahle would stick around for at least two seasons. When Luellen learned the standout Swede was done after one year, she was grateful that Stahle took pride in her studies right down to the last paper, posting a 3.9 GPA in her final semester.

“The worst thing that can happen is if (a player) just blows off her schoolwork that last semester of school,” Luellen said. “It can really affect you negatively in a pretty short amount of time.”

Stahle, last season’s Golfweek Player of the Year, succeeded in putting the Sun Devils back on the recruiting map. Luellen credits Stahle with enabling Arizona State to land a premier international recruit in Spain’s Azahara Munoz, a freshman this fall.

For many schools, however, it has taken a little longer to recover from early departures.

“If you look at Duke and UCLA, they’re still getting AJGA All-Americans at all five positions,” said Arizona coach Greg Allen. “We’ve done that in the past, but because of the LPGA Tour we’ve lost out on those players after one or two years.”

Allen, of course, is referring to Natalie Gulbis, Lorena Ochoa and Erica Blasberg. Gulbis left after her freshman year, and Ochoa and Blasberg split after their sophomore seasons. Without a big-name player in 2004-05, Arizona failed to advance to the NCAA Championship for the first time in 10 seasons. The program was dealt another blow this summer when Granada backed out of her commitment.

Allen isn’t the only one who has been burned by the lure of the almighty dollar. Florida coach Jill Briles-Hinton thought she’d struck gold when wonder twins Aree and Naree Song signed on the dotted line in 2003. But Aree never set foot on campus, and Naree lasted only one semester.

Since then, Briles-Hinton has shied away from players who aren’t diploma-driven.

“The tour is dog-eat-dog out there,” said Briles-Hinton, a former LPGA player. “It’s got to be because you’ve got to survive. I’m not saying pros aren’t nice, but they’ve got to look after their own interests. Who are these young kids going to bond with?

“Colleges offer a lot of services that these kids get for free. They should take advantage of the system, and they should grow up.”

Angela Park, Golfweek’s fourth-ranked junior, says her studying days will come to an end when she graduates from high school in 2006. And in one of the most glaring examples of the recent trend, even unranked Carmen Bandea, a self-assured 15-year-old with a spotty golf resume, unsuccessfully petitioned Votaw to get into this year’s LPGA Q-School field.

“I’ve been playing golf for five, six years and I have fairly good results in what I’ve done so far,” Bandea said. “I practice like a professional so I might as well get paid for what I do.”

While Bandea’s logic is fairly unique, many players are operating under the if-she-can-do-it-I-can principle. So far in her rookie season, the 19-year-old Creamer has pocketed more than $1.2 million, while fellow teen Brittany Lincicome has pulled down six figures. And if amateurs Pressel and Wie could earn money, they’d be buying dangling earrings by the truckload.

“I think there are a couple of players out there that it fits. . . . I’m OK with a couple of them,” said Luellen. But she has a problem “when everyone jumps on the bandwagon just because they beat Paula Creamer in a junior tournament or they beat Morgan Pressel a couple times and think they’re ready to turn pro.”

Like many of her peers, Choe thinks it’s great so many teens are making their mark on tour. At 16, the Californian seems to have been a force in the junior ranks forever. Perhaps that’s why, to her, an approaching professional career doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I saw Michelle (Wie) at the U.S. Women’s Open, and she was really glad I was there,” said Choe, ranked No. 6 by Golfweek. “She doesn’t get to hang out with a lot of people her age and was excited to have someone to talk to. . . . I mean if I go on tour, do I really need college?”

Depends on who you ask.

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