Four years of college once comprised the road most traveled to the LPGA Tour. Golfers proved themselves at the NCAA level and then embarked on a pro career, degree in hand. It was commonplace for an LPGA rookie to be 22, 23, 24 years old. Their best playing days would come as they matured.
Back in the day the LPGA elite seemed to flourish or sustain as they approached middle age and tip-toed beyond. Betsy King was player of the year at 38 in 1993, Beth Daniel at 38 in '94. Two years later Laura Davies earned the honor, a relative youngster at 33. At 35, players were knighted with the noble tag of "wily veteran." Now those 35 are perceived to have overstayed their welcome, notwithstanding Karrie Webb's charge Saturday at the LPGA Championship.
In announcing her retirement upon completion of this event, Grace Park offered a reminder of the game's rapid evolution. She's had her fill and she's only 33. Lorena Ochoa was 29 when she retired in 2010 after four years ranked No. 1 in the world. Early burnout beckons as childhoods are traded for total golf immersion. If you're not on tour by 19, 20, 21 you've conceded your peers a huge head start.
Those numbers could be headed lower, and don't blame it all on Asian players. Michelle Wie was 12 years, 4 months and 14 days when she Monday qualified for the Takefuji Classic. At 13-5-19 she became the youngest player to make the cut in an LPGA event.
Lexi Thompson qualified for the Women's U.S. Open at 12. Last year she captured the Navistar Classic, becoming at 16-7-8 the youngest winner in LPGA history. With that victory in hand, she applied for an age exemption and was granted LPGA Tour membership by commissioner Michael Whan. Thompson turned 17 four months ago Saturday.
What was once the exception is fast becoming the norm. At least 17 current members were 20 or under when they qualified for the LPGA Tour. Two-time Player of the Year Yani Tseng of Taiwan has triumphed in 12 events, including five majors, and she's 23. At 15 she won the USGA Women's Amateur Public Links. The player who finished second to Tseng on last year's money list, South Korean Na Yeon Choi, was 17 when she won a Korean Tour event as an amateur. Nineteen teenagers have advanced through next month's U.S. Women's Open sectional qualifying, including a pair of 14-year-olds.
"It's amazing, the transformation, or I don't know what the word is, but the changes there have been since the '90's or early 2000," Park said. "Just everything about it. Not just with the Korean players, but with American players, Europeans. The field is younger. The skills have really escalated. It's a world-wide tour now."
Park said she's putting away the clubs in part because she isn't playing well, and in part because she figures it's time she experienced life outside the ropes. She was born in Seoul and relocated to Hawaii, where she had family, to pursue golf. Two years later, weary from the travel, she moved on her own to Arizona. She was 14, and the game would define her for the next 20 years.
"I don't even know what I like doing," Park said, a chilling admission from someone her age.
Se Ri Pak empathizes. She was the lone Korean on the LPGA Tour when she won two majors as a rookie in 1998. Now there's close to 50, all having followed the lead of someone who took up the game at 14. Her advice: find a balance.
"One point I think I missed something because I'm trying to be out there as best as I could, trying to be the best player in the world," Pak said. "I'm trying to win a tournament, yes, but I'm a human being too. You have to make sure you work hard but at the same time you rest hard too. They come out, play every day, every week, traveling, no resting.
"It's going to be a burnout some day. That's why I tell young players as much as I could say it, 'It is great to be out here. I'm very happy to see you guys. I'm really proud to see you guys here play so well. It will come, but before that make sure you have to enjoy something in your life. Golf is a job. Yes, it's a job.' "
The grind can overwhelm. Wie, once the wonder child of women's golf, missed her sixth straight cut here this week. She can't hit a fairway. Her game is a shambles. But she graduates from Stanford this month with a major in communications. She has an artistic bent and displays her work on her website. There's diversity in her life after those golf-obsessed teenaged years. And how could that be such a bad thing?