Teens prove pro golf has no age limits
Billy Payne wore a smile as wide as the Augusta National fairways as he watched eight kids file out of the room with their trophies from the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship on the Sunday in April before the Masters golf tournament.
"We're going to be hearing from some of these kids again," he said. Payne is the chairman of the Masters, one of the four annual major tournaments in golf.
He was right.
An 11-year-old girl who won her age group in the youth competition before the Masters has played her way into the U.S. Women's Open. It's scheduled June 17-22 at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
Lucy Li, a sixth-grader with braces and a sharp short game, made history Monday with rounds of 74-68 to become the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open. Not only did she earn a spot at the biggest event in women's golf, she won the 36-hole qualifier by seven shots.
It's another example that golf has no age limits.
The record for youngest qualifier had belonged to Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she made it to the 2007 Women's Open. It's only fitting that when Li signed up for the Drive, Chip and Putt, she listed Thompson as among her favorite players.
Li, from the suburbs south of San Francisco, still won't be the youngest player. Beverly Klass was 10 when she played in 1967, but that was when the U.S. Women's Open didn't have qualifying.
Judy Rankin was a 14-year-old prodigy from Missouri when she entered the 1959 U.S. Women's Open in Pittsburgh.
"When I went to register, they asked me if I was registering for my mother," Rankin said Tuesday. "I weighed 80 pounds. I remember the first tee was way up high. I was shaking. I was so scared, so nervous. I thought I could fall off. I didn't even make the cut. I was probably ill-prepared to be playing. But the next year, I was low amateur."
Teenagers in the U.S. Women's Open are nothing new.
Morgan Pressel, who went on to become the youngest major champion in LPGA Tour history at 18, qualified for the U.S. Women's Open in 2001 when she 12. Michelle Wie was 12 when she qualified for her first LPGA Tour event, and she was in the final group at a major when she was 13.
Lydia Ko was 15 when she won the Canadian Women's Open two years ago, making her the youngest winner in LPGA history. Now she's in range of becoming No. 1 in the world.
In men's golf, Matteo Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he had his driver's license. Ryo Ishikawa won his first professional tournament when he was 15. Jordan Spieth nearly won the Masters last month at age 20.
Even so, two numbers are enough to get anyone's attention "11" and "sixth grade."
"This is ridiculous," Dottie Pepper said Tuesday, more amazed than concerned. Earlier in the day, Pepper was on Twitter and tried to get her head around an 11-year-old teeing it up at Pinehurst No. 2 when she noted that Li's date of birth was "THIS CENTURY. Whoa!"
Rankin and Pepper both attributed the increasing achievements by teens pre-teens in Li's case to modern equipment and coaching.
Li began playing when she was 7 by whacking a few golf balls on the range while waiting for her brother and cousin to finish a golf tournament. And this is not the first time Li has written herself into USGA history. She set a record last year in the U.S. Women's Amateur as the youngest qualifier at age 10. She also was the youngest in the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links to reach match play, losing in the first round to a college player.
"For people with talent, regardless of age, today's equipment is making the game a lot easier to learn," Rankin said. "For talented people, they are learning the game quicker and easier. That has a big bearing on it."
Critical thinking challenge: What do all these young players have in common? When did they start playing?