Teens stealing show at Women’s Am

ST. LOUIS – The chasm that once separated junior golfers from elite amateurs is rapidly narrowing.

Think the gap that separates a boat from its dock. Jump correctly and you’ll clear the gap, but murky water awaits you if you don’t.

Junior golfers are now taking that leap in big numbers, and they’re clearing the gap. This is clearly evident at the U.S. Women’s Amateur where five of the eight players that advanced to the quarterfinals Thursday at Old Warson Country Club are teenagers who have yet to begin their college careers.

“We’re awesome. What can we say?” said Jessica Korda, who is one of several girls at the forefront of the junior revolution.

Along with 16-year-old Korda, Tiffany Lua (18), Jennifer Johnson (18), Han Jangeun (16), and Alexis Thompson (14) collected wins in the Round of 16. They combine to make the average age of remaining players at the Women’s Am a little over 17 1/2.

“Everyone is like 14,” said Sydnee Michaels, a UCLA senior who fell victim to Johnson in the Round of 16. “I’m looking at the young stars here... It reminds me of me [at that age].”

At last year’s Women’s Amateur, all but one –15-year-old Erynne Lee – of the eight quarterfinalists were college players.

However, five of the eight quarterfinalists at the 2007 Women’s Am were 17 or younger. One of those quarterfinalists was Thompson, who at the age of 12 had made history the same summer when she became the youngest player to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.

“I think the juniors are coming up a lot because they’re getting better and better,” said Thompson, who beat 17-year-old Cyna Marie Rodriguez in the Round of 16. “We practice a lot.”

Thompson’s feat in 2007 has generated a loyal following wherever she goes, and the Coral Springs, Fla., native attracted by far the event’s largest galleries during her match with Rodriguez.

Since Cheyenne Woods, the niece of Tiger Woods, was eliminated in the first round, Thompson is the closest thing to a celebrity at the Women’s Am.

“There’s a lot of expectations everywhere we go,” said Scott Thompson, Alexis’s father. “People come up to us at the Open and say ‘We think you should win,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, don’t say that, she’s [only] 14!’ ”

The meteoric rise of junior golfers was seen at the U.S. Women’s Open. An astounding 31 teenagers played in the event. Ten made the cut.

At Saucon Valley, Thompson played alongside Korda and fellow teen Kimberly Kim, who won the 2006 Women’s Amateur at age 14, becoming the youngest winner in history. In a field that included Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, and Cristie Kerr, hundreds flocked to the teenaged threesome and marveled at their ability.

“[Petr, Jessica’s father] Korda always comes up to me and says, ‘We’re under the radar, and you’re not,’ ” Scott Thompson said. “I’m like, ‘You think you’re under the radar? What TV are you watching?’ ”

Considering their fame, it’s no surprise that Alexis and Jessica are good friends. Korda said that the two – who have had dinner together throughout this week – have thrived off pushing each other.

“We don’t have any pressure. We don’t have money to play for. We don’t have sponsors to please,” Korda said. “Just please yourself, just do the best you can.

“If the best is good enough, then good job.”

The juniors who were once a novelty are now the norm. The teens who were once greeted with petulance are now regarded as potential winners. They’re feared.

“We see how well the LPGA girls are playing,” said Korda, “and we want to be better.”

They’re saying forget about the dock.

Bring on the world.

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