Women's Open field keeps getting younger

Alexis Thompson made her professional debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Alexis Thompson made her professional debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

U.S. Women's Open

July 8-11

Course: Oakmont Country Club (6,598 yards, par 71), Oakmont, Pa.

Purse: $3.25 million. Winner's share: $585,000.

TV: ESPN2 (Thu.-Fri., 3-7 p.m.) and NBC (Sat.-Sun., 3-6 p.m.).

Last year: South Korea's Eun Hee Ji won at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pa., holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a one-stroke victory over Candie Kung.

Notes: Cristie Kerr is coming off a 12-stroke victory two weeks ago in the LPGA Championship that made her the first American to top the world ranking. The 2007 U.S. Women's Open champion at Pine Needles, Kerr has two victories this year and 14 overall.

OAKMONT, Pa. (USA) — Alexis Thompson is only 15, so young that some of the other teenagers who are eagerly seeking her autograph at the U.S. Women's Open are years older than she is.

Thompson enjoyed considerable success as an amateur, yet she's still three years short of the age that even the most skilled of golfers traditionally reach before deciding whether to turn pro.

Making this week even more difficult, Thompson's second tournament as a pro is the women's national championship, a USGA-run event that's so demanding it can make the most mature of pros weigh retirement.

Which raises this question: How young is too young?

Former child prodigy Michelle Wie still hasn't fully established herself among the sport's elite at age 20, yet she's not close to being the youngest in a 156-golfer field that includes 23 teenagers. Thompson isn't the youngest, either; two 14-year-old amateurs, Ariya Jutanugarn and Gabriella Then, are playing.

Top-tier amateur golfers once weighed whether to turn pro or go to college. Now, the choice can be far more intricate: Finish a traditional high school or turn pro. Thompson chose the latter, and will conclude her pre-college studies as a home-schooled student — or is it golf course-schooled?

Asked who accompanied her to Oakmont, Thompson rattled off the same list any teen might offer before a prime athletic event: her parents, a grandmother and an uncle. With one exception: Her agents are here, too.

"If I can just go out and just relax and play my own game, I think I'll play really well out there," said Thompson, from Coral Springs, Fla. "Just keep a consistent four-day score and just play really well, I think I can compete out there."

She will be content, she said, if she shoots par. Ambitious, she is; even-par at Oakmont would have won the 2007 U.S. Open by five shots — the men's open, that is.

To world No. 1-ranked Cristie Kerr, who is coming off a 12-stroke victory in the LPGA Championship, it's a bit disconcerting to see so many youngsters crowding onto a golf course at an age when most teens are enthused with a movie and a night at the mall. She admittedly was surprised to see Thompson turn pro so young, even if Thompson's two older brothers, Nicholas and Curtis, are golf pros. Nicholas plays on the PGA Tour.

Kerr, who led after two rounds at last year's Women's Open in eastern Pennsylvania before being overtaken by surprise winner Eun-Hee Ji, will be the clear favorite as the Women's Open begins play Thursday morning at Oakmont.

"I played with a girl that was 14 in the practice round," Kerr said. "They don't carry themselves like kids anymore. People that are that young, it's kind of a business to them. They want to do it to make money and have a career."

So much for baby-sitting or walking the neighbor's dog.

"I just thought my game was ready, and I wanted to take my game to the next level and play against the best in the world," Thompson said. "I'm really happy with my decision, and my family has supported me the whole way."

Thompson, the youngest to turn pro to date, first qualified for the U.S. Open at age 12 in 2007 before winning the U.S. junior girls title a year later.

Still, several of the most experienced pros are wondering if it's the best decision to send 10th graders into such an intense, competitive environment.

So much for the stereotypical Little League parents, who are content for their kids to take home a shiny gold trophy. Now, it can be argued, there are LPGA parents who can't wait for a child's puberty to end before allowing her to go pro.

Wie's still-developing career, for example, might have stalled when her parents allowed her to accept exemptions into PGA Tour events. To some of her fellow golfers, she would have been better served playing in LPGA tournaments or high-profile amateur events.

"I wanted to be in school, I wanted to play junior tournaments," said Paula Creamer, an eight-time LPGA Tour winner. "I liked traveling and playing at the AJGA (juniors) and playing the Curtis Cup, junior Solheim Cup, those kind of things. I liked that. That's what was best for me. That's always been the path that I've gone."

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