LPGA age policy may need some changing

JIM BRIGHTERS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 7:49 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA - Lexi Thompson, all of 16, nearly made LPGA Tour history this week.

She shared the 54-hole lead of the Avent LPGA Classic and if she would've won, she would've been the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history by almost two years.

Thompson isn't a member of the LPGA Tour. She's not allowed to be based on the tour's rule that doesn't permit players under the age of 18.

Per the tour, "women between the ages of 15 and 18 may be granted special permission to apply for membership by satisfactorily demonstrating to the Commissioner their capacity to assume professional and financial responsibilities of the association's Tour Division members."

So, Thompson isn't a member of the tour because of her birth date. Had she won Sunday, she wouldn't have been a full member, but she had options.

Once again, per LPGA Tour policy: "If a non-LPGA member professional, younger than 18 years of age, wins an event: as with amateurs less than 18 years of age, she has the option to petition the LPGA Commissioner for early entrance onto the LPGA Tour. If that permission is granted, she would then have the same options as a professional 18 years or older."

The LPGA Tour dodged a bullet when Thompson struggled badly on Sunday. She shot a six-over 78 and fell well down the leaderboard. So LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan didn't have to make what would have been a tough call.

But should it even have been a call to begin with?

The LPGA Tour, more than the PGA Tour, has had accomplished youngsters compete at very high levels. Michelle Wie comes to mind, but there's precedent. Morgan Pressel and Aree Song were both granted early membership before they could legally vote in the United States. Jessica Korda was granted the early membership, but that was for just one or two events since she turned 18 a few months into this season.

Last year, Thompson, then 15, petitioned the tour for more than the standard six sponsor's exemptions, but was denied. The tour allows now for non-members to try and Monday qualify for domestic events.

When Commissioner Whan denied her request he said, "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. I appreciate the thought and passion that Lexi, her family and her management team at Blue Giraffe Sports put into their petition. It's clear to me that Lexi and her team have a quality, long-term vision."

Why Thompson didn't petition for the early membership instead of the doubled sponsor's exemptions is a curious decision. Maybe her team didn't think she was ready for full membership, who knows?

Is the age policy necessary, that's the real question.

First of all, the tour is certainly aware the policy generates concerns.

"It's something that obviously is kind of a hot-button issue so we definitely stay on top of it and make sure we're current," Chief Communications Officer for the LPGA Tour David Higdon told The Sports Network. "It's a policy that we look at regularly, not necessarily based on the play of particular players, but more on how the overall influx of players over the course of years and age differences."

If we examine the wording of the rule, players have to "satisfactorily demonstrate to the Commissioner their capacity to assume professional and financial responsibilities of the association's Tour Division members," that's a pretty broad stroke.

Commissioner Whan has full discretion when it comes to who gets this membership. While the policy is firm, Whan judges on a case-by-case basis and there are plenty of concerns.

"It isn't just about how well you play within the ropes," said Higdon. "Clearly Lexi has talent and will be a great pro. To be a member, to be on the tour, there's so much more that goes into that. It's playing pro-ams, it's traveling around the world, it's meeting obligations for sponsors. It's a wide range of activities.

"The LPGA's been around for 60 years. It's taxing on young players. That's what he has to look at as the commissioner - have the players demonstrated the full scope and range and understanding of what it takes to be a member of the tour and what comes with that."

Let's look at Thompson. She qualified for the U.S. Women's Open when she was 12. She finished second last year at the Evian Masters, which is one of the biggest events, both in stature and purse, on the LPGA Tour.

On Saturday, Thompson put herself in position to win. She didn't and in fact, played poorly on Sunday, so maybe the tour's position made sense in this instance. But Thompson has clearly shown the chops to play at this level.

And stumbling away a tournament on Sunday isn't age specific. Greg Norman was 41 when he blew the 1996 Masters. Rory McIlroy was five years older than Thompson this year at Augusta when he hit it into someone's day room.

Showing "financial responsibilities" isn't something just 16-year-olds have to worry about. Jack Nicklaus spread himself too thin financially during his career.

There aren't many 16-year-olds in charge of their own finances. Thompson's family clearly is involved in her career. Her father caddies for her, so is family interest part of the mix?

"Mike acknowledged when he turned down their initial decision this year that he felt very positive about the family, very positive about the team that's working with her and believed they had a good long-term vision for her," Higdon said. "They weren't looking for something from a short-term perspective. That bodes well for the future for her."

It seems, and this isn't anyone's call, but that of Commissioner Whan, that Thompson meets the criteria. Again, Thompson's team never petitioned for early membership, so we'll never know what Whan would have done.

If Thompson continues to play well and possibly get that tour record for youngest winner, it would be hard to imagine Whan turning down a request for membership.

The tour is trying to protect young players from making mistakes and that's commendable. The broad wording of its policy leaves Whan with all of the power.

If a player, even one who can just barely legally drive, can compete and represent the tour in a positive fashion (there have never been knocks against Thompson on that front), it seems anyone, not just Thompson, should be able to make her living as a full member.

Age restrictions don't always make sense. The NBA has its policy about having to be 19 and it's worked fine. But what did guys like John Wall or Derrick Rose learn from their one year in college.

What about child prodigies in areas like music? Not just teenagers like Miley Cyrus, but there are very young kids who are talented classical musicians. Should they not be allowed to play with the Boston Philharmonic because of their age.

There are big-picture implications and specific ones when it comes to Thompson, but it seems the tour and Thompson would both be fine if she were a full member.

Maybe she should've asked for that.

Random thoughts

- Bubba Watson is probably the best American in the world right now. Shocking, but if you would've said three years ago the two best U.S. players would be Watson and Matt Kuchar, you'd have made a lot of money.

- Webb Simpson's penalty on 15 for grounding his club and then the ball moving may seem silly, but that's the rules. It's also time to stop canonizing players for calling penalties on themselves. That's the game.

- Just when everyone wondered about the validity of the world rankings, Lee Westwood wins twice. Any questions now?

- Now Tiger is injured? This just isn't going the way anyone expected.

- I'm playing in the Northwest Veterans' Golf Outing on Monday. I imagine it'll be a little rowdier based on Sunday night's glorious announcement.

- Movie moment - "Empire Strikes Back" is widely considered the best of the "Star Wars" franchise. What always struck me was when Darth Vader was about to freeze Han Solo and Chewbacca loses his Wookie mind, why did Vader stop Boba Fett from shooting him? Darth Vader of all people felt sympathy for Chewie? A little out of character, no?


Photos