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trying to take that away from an 11-year- old? Because it would sound better if she was 12? 14? 16? What’s the magic number? Does she need to pass Algebra I to keep score now? Does she need a mastery of the Pythagorean Theorem so she can calculate her yardage when she’s playing from the wrong fairway? What if this is the only time Li

ever qualifies? Do we just want an age limit to

control the stage moms and nutjob dads who take the Todd Marinovich approach to parenting? “If it was my kid, I wouldn’t let her

play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that’s just me,” said world No. 1 Stacy Lewis. (Although to be fair, Lewis didn’t call an emergency press conference to denounce Li. She answered a question she was asked.) But if you ask me, it seems like Li

actually had the most mature take out of anyone. “The game’s going to take me wher-

ever it’s going to take me, so I really don’t care that much,” she said. Li gets it. You can’t see into the future. Now if only the rest of us could figure

that out.

KEVIN MERFELD is the assistant director of communications and marketing at the NCGA.

   Yes

Alexa Pano of Lake Worth, Fla., tried to qualify for the U.S. Women’s

Open this year. She didn’t make it, but Pano—a decorated junior player who has won more than 30 national tourna- ments, was featured in a documentary called “The Short Game” and appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”— figures to try again next year. Oh, by the way: Pano is 9 years old. Now that is too young to play in

America’s national championship. Make no mistake, Lucy Li—the

precocious 11-year-old from right here in Northern California (Redwood Shores)—supplied fodder for my esteemed colleague’s counterargument on these pages. Li belied her age at the Women’s Open in June, charming the media and showing uncommon poise during consecutive rounds of 78. Two thoughts here: Not all 11-year-

olds are Lucy Li, and this really could get out of hand.

What’s next, kindergarten recess on

the practice range? Juice boxes in the locker room?

As delightful and entertaining as Li

was at Pinehurst, it’s absolutely reason- able to question the wisdom of girls this young competing against the world’s best players. Li is clearly an outlier, not only in talent but also in her make-up. It’s easy to picture a misguided parent out there watching Li on television and de- manding more practice from a promising 9-year-old (or 7-year-old or 5-year-old)

11-year-olds trying to hang on the game’s grandest stage. “I’m not a big fan of it,” Lewis said.

“She qualified, so we can’t say anything about that. But I like to see kids be success- ful at every level before they come out here. I just like to see kids learn how to win be- fore they come get beat up out here. “When I found out she qualified, I said,

The USGA should adopt an age minimum (my vote is 14) for participation in the most visible tournament in the women’s game.

in hopes of reaching the Open sooner rather than later. Like, say, Alexa Pano. It’s worth remembering the sad story

of Beverly Klass, the youngest player in U.S. Women’s Open history at age 10 in 1967. Klass’ father forced her to join the LPGA as a 9-year-old; later, it came out that her dad abused Klass in pushing her toward success. These fears help explain why LPGA

commissioner Michael Whan, after much contemplation, adopted an age minimum (18) for tour membership. And this is why the USGA also should adopt an age minimum (my vote is 14) for participation in the most visible tour- nament in the women’s game. The American Junior Golf Associa-

tion, after all, requires players to be at least 12 to compete. So golfers such as Li are too young to enter an AJGA event, but they can play in the U.S. Women’s Open. That’s odd, to say the least. Even if there were an age mini-

mum for the Open, and the AJGA just wasn’t glamorous enough, Li and other prodigies still could compete in marquee national tournaments—the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the USGA Women’s Ama- teur. Those events offer strong competi- tion without the hoopla/pressure/spot- light of the Open. Stacy Lewis, the world’s No.

1-ranked player, offered her candid opinion at Pinehurst and took an unfair bashing in return. Lewis wasn’t knocking Li. She was merely making a wider- angle point about the whole concept of

‘Well, where does she go from here? You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?’” Lewis was a lone voice during the Open. As soon as Li plopped herself in the interview room on Tuesday—swiveling back and forth in her chair, giggling through her news conference and playfully revealing her

dad cannot beat her—it became clear she would win America’s heart. But nearly a month earlier, on the

day after Li advanced through sectional qualifying at Half Moon Bay, another respected golf figure wondered if her Open appearance made sense. Kay Cockerill, the two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur cham- pion and Golf Channel reporter with deep Northern California ties, worried about the path ahead. “I personally think it’s awfully young to face the biggest national stage,” Cockerill said. “…When you start experiencing too much too fast, how do you adjust mentally and keep the love and thrill alive when you’re a ‘veteran’ player at 17 or 18?” This debate also veers into uncomfort-

able medical terrain. It requires relentless practice to become an elite athlete, and that isn’t always the smart choice, physically, for pre-teens. While watching Li play at Pinehurst, my mind drifted to the words of several Bay Area doctors in a story I wrote last October about youth sports. One doctor specifically warned against

playing some sports—such as golf, tennis or baseball—year-round at young ages, because those are “unilateral arm-dominant sports” and often lead to overuse injuries. That doesn’t mean Lucy Li, Alexa Pano

and other phenoms shouldn’t chase their dreams. But the USGA also could offer a gentle, symbolic reminder: There’s no rush. Take your time. The U.S. Open will still be here when you’re 14.

RON KROICHICK covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.

SUMMER 2014 / NCGA.ORG / 19

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