Golf’s youth movement means 30 is the new 20

Jul 28, 2015, 4:12 PM

Lexi Thompson holds the trophy after winning the Meijer LPGA Classic golf tournament Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Belmont, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The criteria fits for the label as the best player to have never won a major.

Seven career victories. Finishing no worse than third in just over 30 percent of the tournaments. The No. 1 player in the world for the first half of the season. Adding to the numbers is being viewed as one of the favorites at every major.

What doesn’t fit is the age. Lydia Ko just turned 18 a couple of months ago.

Is that too much to ask of someone so young?

Not anymore.

With the explosive youth movement in golf, age no longer is an excuse.

No one was talking about Ko still being only 17 at the ANA Inspiration for the first major of the year. The number that week was 28 consecutive rounds under par, during which she won twice and rose to No. 1 in the world. She opened with another subpar round, the streak ended the next day and she tied for 51st.

The first question she took from the floor at her next major was the glaring omission — a major — from an otherwise remarkable record. Ko had never missed the cut in her career until that week at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. A month later, she was never in contention at the U.S. Women’s Open.

Her next chance starts Thursday at Turnberry in the Ricoh Women’s British Open.

Ko no longer is No. 1 in the world. Inbee Park replaced her by winning the Women’s PGA Championship last month for her sixth major. Being the No. 2 player only slightly eases the pressure on Ko, although the burden will get heavier with each passing major.

Golf careers start much younger these days, and so does the level of expectations.

And while it doesn’t seem right that Ko should face such questions as a teenager, it doesn’t seem that ludicrous when surveying the landscape. Lexi Thompson, who picked up her fifth career victory on Sunday, was 19 when she won her first major a year ago in the California desert.

Morgan Pressel was 18 when she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2007.

Michelle Wie was 16 when she was in serious contention on the back nine of three straight majors. Wie finally won a major a year ago at Pinehurst No. 2 in the U.S. Women’s Open. She was 24. Then again, Wie is a few months away from celebrating her 10-year anniversary as a pro.

Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have shown in recent years that it’s not just women’s golf where youth is thriving.

McIlroy was 22 when he set the U.S. Open scoring record at Congressional. He picked up his fourth major at age 25, joining Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win that many men’s major at such a young age.

Spieth was 11 holes away from being the youngest Masters champion at 20 until Bubba Watson caught him in one hole and beat him on the back nine last year at Augusta National Spieth made up for it this year with a green jacket at 21 (second-youngest winner behind Woods at Augusta) and a U.S. Open title that made him the youngest man with two majors since Gene Sarazen in 1922.

Age is not the best measure these days. It’s more about experience.

Spieth turned 22 on Monday, and it made for an easy comparison with Woods when he was that age. Spieth already had one more major and the same amount of worldwide victories (7) as Woods at that age. Woods, however, achieved that in 16 months. Spieth has been a pro nearly twice that long.

McIlroy won his first major at age 22, but it was his fourth full year as a pro.

Ko already had two LPGA Tour victories as an amateur, both at the Canadian Women’s Open. She played a full schedule as an amateur — 12 events on the LPGA Tour in 2013, the last one her pro debut at the CME Group Titleholders.

This is her third full season on the LPGA Tour (second as a pro). It speaks to her ability — an efficient swing, reliable putter and remarkable calm — that she already is being asked about when she will finally win a major. Odds are it will happen before she’s old enough to celebrate with a glass of champagne.

Stacy Lewis was 26 when she won her first major, which might seem old by today’s standards except that Lewis is a throwback. She not only went to college, she finished college. Lewis turned pro at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open. She won her first major in her third full years on the LPGA Tour.

That’s about where Ko is now. She has talked about retiring when she is 30, though it’s hard to tell if she’s serious. Ko was asked Tuesday at Turnberry how many majors she would like to have by then.

“I have no idea,” she said with a laugh. “Even one would be amazing.”

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