COMMENTARY: With the LPGA season winding down in the next month commissioner Michael Whan has a pretty big decision ahead of him. Lydia Ko the golf prodigy from New Zealand has submitted her papers for membership to the LPGA.
Ko who is only sixteen years old made the decision on October 23rd to forsake her amateur status and pursue golf full time professionally. Originally from South Korea, Ko and her family relocated to New Zealand when she was five years old and Ko quickly took up the game of golf. Turns out it was a pretty good decision as she has been the top-ranked amateur for the past two years and has already won four professional events including two on the LPGA.
Although Ko has in the past hinted that she would wait until she went to college before leaving the amateur ranks, the tipping point no doubt came in September when she finished second at The Evian Championship. The runner-up finish at the final major of the year also bumped Ko to 4th place in the Rolex World rankings and put the amount of money that she has given-up as an amateur player well over the million dollar mark.
In true teenage style Ko made her announcement via Twitter in a YouTube video and stated that she intends to play her first event as a professional in November on the LPGA at the season ending CME Group Titleholders, an event that Ko qualified for this past season. It will then be up to Whan to decide if he is going to grant Ko an exemption to the LPGA, which normally requires their players to be eighteen before taking up membership.
Lexi Thompson unsuccessfully petitioned for membership to the LPGA in 2010 after she turned pro that summer at the age of fifteen. Whan did not grant the American membership until after she won the Navistar LPGA Classic in 2011 thus forcing Thompson to rely on sponsor exemptions in her first year as a pro. Thompson was seventeen when she became an official member of the LPGA and joined the ranks of other seventeen year olds granted early membership such as Jessica Korda and Morgan Pressel.
While all three of those golfers have had incredible careers so far, Whan still tends to err on the side of caution concerning granting early membership and justified his reasoning in a Golf Channel interview a few years ago.
“At the real core of it, I didn’t think I wanted to be the commissioner that created a new pathway to the LPGA that made young girls around the world think that as a freshman or sophomore in high school that they have a big decision to make. I didn’t want to create this worldwide phenomenon where 14 year-olds are sitting in their living room and thinking, `High school or pro?’ It didn’t feel like the right thing to do.”
Whan who took over the reigns as commissioner in 2010 has been a great ambassador for the women’s game and has worked to turn the tour around from the poor state he inherited. The demands of a professional golfer go far beyond the four rounds of golf that are seen on television and those are the things Whan is keeping in mind before giving the go-ahead to the young women who petition him every year.
This past year Whan turned down Ariya Jutanugarn when she applied for qualifying school at only 17 years of age. Her sister Moriya one year her senior was beginning her rookie season on the tour and Ariya hoped to join her. Whan turned her appeal down and Ariya has been forced to play on sponsor exemptions as well as on the Ladies European Tour. An injury has shortened Ariya’s season but she did win an event on the LET and is currently ranked 27th in the world. Perhaps Ariya would have been a perfect fit for the LPGA this year but Whan didn’t see the harm in forcing her to wait one more year for full membership.
For Ko however it is hard to believe that despite still being two years shy of eighteen that Whan would look to keep her away from the LPGA fulltime. She has proven that she can handle the media attention and extra demands on her schedule that go along with tour life. And can you really deny someone who is the 4th best golfer in the world the best platform in women’s golf? Perhaps it is not the precedent that Whan wants to set for future players but Ko is proving that she is something truly special and players like her shouldn’t be pushed aside simply because of their age.