January 14, 2011
The LPGA, burned by allowing Michelle Wie to play in too many events at an early age, will not permit 15-year-old golf prodigy Lexi Thompson to use 12 sponsor exemptions in 2011. It's a move designed to prevent charges that the LPGA rushes its stars into top-level competition before they're ready, possibly to the players' detriment.
"Lexi has remarkable skills for a 15-year-old, and if she continues to grow and develop, I believe that she should have a great future both on and off the golf course," LPGA commissioner Mike Whan indicated in an email published by The Golf Channel and many other outlets. "This season, Lexi still will be able to secure up to six sponsor exemptions for LPGA sanctioned events, and also may choose to pursue additional playing opportunities through our 'open' Monday qualifier format."
Whan did not elaborate on why he was denying the request for 12 exemptions, up from six. It's likely, though, that the decision was made with an eye toward public relations and possible precedent-setting; in addition, as the Golf Channel notes, longtime tour players were reportedly incensed at the idea that Thompson would receive more benefits and privileges as a sponsors' exemption than established pros.
Still, permitting her to play in Monday qualifiers, which is a change to established policy, could result in up to 15 tournaments, Thompson's team indicated. Qualifiers are brutal affairs, as dozens of players challenge for only two open spots.
Generally, the LPGA requires players to be 18 for full eligibility. But last year, Thompson earned $336,472 as a non-tour member. Had she been a member of the LPGA, she would have ranked 34th. The youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open, she ranked as high as second last year, in the Evian Masters.
Though this may be somewhat frustrating for Thompson and her team, it's the right move long-term. Throwing open the door to Thompson probably wouldn't backfire -- she's from a golfing family and has a strong, stable team in place behind her -- but who's to say the next young phenom won't be quite so balanced? It's all too easy for opportunistic parents and managers to take advantage of a young, talented player, and that's a path straight to burnout, not stardom.