LPGA Tour: Young and getting younger

Brian Heard Women's Golf Reporter

The trend has been going on for a couple of decades, but it’s picked up speed the last few years. Without a doubt, at the highest levels, golf is a very young woman’s game.

Where have the 30-somethings gone? Twenty-five years ago the Tour was filled with ’em. Now, the seemingly few players as old as Karrie Webb (34 years old) and Cristie Kerr (31) must feel like grizzled, old vets not far away from the retirement village.

Look at the numbers. Just eight years ago in 2001, the average age of the players in the top 20 on the money list was 28.45, and included nine players over the age of 30, six of which were 35 or older – one, Rosie Jones, was over 40.

This year the average age in the top 20 is 24.25, with just three players over 30 (Kerr, Webb and Angela Stanford), none of which entered the season more than 34 years old.

Going further down the list doesn’t add much to the over-30 crowd either. In the top 50, there are only eight players over 30 (and that includes Nicole Castrale, who just celebrated her 30th birthday) and four 35 or older – Wendy Ward (36), Pat Hurst (40), Juli Inkster (49) and Helen Alfreddson (44).

We can take the numbers game even further, if you’d like. Check that, make that if I’d like … and I do.

In 1984, the average age of tournament winners was 31.2, with 12 over 30, five over 40. Only two were won by players under 25.

This season the average age of winners is 25.8. Interestingly, though, four players over 30 have won. But seven of the LPGA’s 13 tournaments have been won by players 23 and under.

The trend isn’t likely to go away either. As always these days there are many young, talented Koreans who could be on their way to America in the very near future. Keep in mind the names of So Yeon Ryu (just turned 19), Ha-Neul Kim (20), He Yong Choi (18) and Sun Ju Ahn (21) because they’re likely to be part of the next wave of Koreans coming this way.

The youth movement is not restricted to Asia though. Look at the money list on the Futures Tour. It’s headed up by 24-year-old American Jean Reynolds. No. 2 is 19-year-old Californian Mina Harigae, followed by Misun Cho (21), who was born in Korea but has lived in the U.S. for a number of years. No. 4 is Futures Tour vet Samantha Richdale, a 25-year-old Canadian; and No. 6 is American Christine Song, who only just turned 18.

And, that list doesn’t even contain 14-year-old phenom Alexis Thompson or 18-year-old Cheyenne Woods, Tiger’s niece, who acquitted herself nicely on a sponsor’s exemption at the Wegmans event last weekend. Though she failed to make the cut, of course.

Then there’s 19-year-old Jennifer Song, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Korea, the 2009 U.S. Amateur Public Links Champion and also the NCAA National Freshman of the Year this past season at USC. Could it be long before she turns pro?

And, how about just over the pond in Europe? Twenty-three-year-old Norwegian Marianne Skarpnord currently leads the Order of Merit on the Ladies European Tour. Is it possible she would make the move to the LPGA in an effort to make more money and play with best in the world?

And there’s 22-year-old Englishwoman Melissa Reid, who’s quickly making a name for herself on the LET.

The Jamie Farr Classic

Did I mention, the reigning champion of this week’s LPGA stop is Paula Creamer? Yep, 22-year-old Paula Creamer, who already owns eight Tour titles, and won her first two as an 18-year-old in 2005. Unheard of stuff a couple decades ago.

Currently ranked eighth on the money list, Creamer’s in the field, though a bad wrist, which caused her to withdraw after round one last week, could hamper her chances of repeating, especially with such star-studded competition.

As players gear up for next week’s U.S. Open at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not many are skipping out on the Jamie Farr. Out of the top 25 on the money list, only Webb (14th) won’t be playing this week.

And that’s another growing trend, we’ll talk about at a later date. With the Tour schedule diminishing – seemingly weekly with the announcement of the Kapalua’s collapse yesterday – there aren’t as many chances to play and make money so the players are taking every opportunity to do so. Plus, with the gaps in the schedule they get to rest up without skipping a tournament. We’ll save more on that for another day.

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