SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. (AP) — Michelle Wie had reason to feel old, and it had nothing to do with sore wrists and high scores.
On her way to Pine Needles for the U.S. Women’s Open, she drove past Legacy Golf Links, where the 17-year-old from Hawaii played her first tournament on the mainland at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.
She was 10.
It was the first time she could remember not being able to see the ocean. The first time she went to the practice range and the golf balls were not yellow with a black stripe. She remembers crying after every shot, something she laughs about now.
How long ago does that seem?
“I kept thinking it was like four years ago,” Wie said Tuesday. “But that would only make me 14. It was actually seven years ago. It kind of makes me feel a little bit old now.”
In an area steeped in Southern hospitality where no one is in a hurry, time sure flies.
Just ask Morgan Pressel.
She returned to Pine Needles as the youngest major champion in LPGA Tour history. Six years ago, she showed up as a 13-year-old in braces, the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history. One of her biggest thrills was meeting Karrie Webb and Lorie Kane, and having girls only a few years younger asking for her autograph.
“I remember I practiced my autograph in the car,” Pressel said. “I had all these different variations of it. Which one am I going to use? And it’s totally changed since then.”
Then she smiled at the memory.
“Yeah, it’s cute,” she added.
But it’s no longer a novelty.
Pressel isn’t even in the record books anymore.
She was replaced this year by Alexis Thompson, who is not among the 24 teenagers at Pine Needles because she’s only 12. She shot rounds of 71-72 to become the youngest qualifier in tournament history.
Webb never would have seen this coming.
She thought she did well to win the Women’s British Open (before it counted as a major) at age 20, and earn her LPGA Tour card in her first attempt that year despite playing with a broken bone in her hand.
Webb won the U.S. Women’s Open the last time it was held at Pine Needles in 2001, and while she’ll never forget that feeling of hoisting the biggest prize in her sport, she also remembers all the attention early in the week on Pressel.
“I tried to think of myself as a 13-year-old and how far away I was from ever thinking about competing in the U.S. Open,” Webb said. “It was one of those things where you thought that’s a one-off. You’re not going to see a 13-year-old play the U.S. Open very often.”
To quote one of those teens, “Oh, yeah?”
Two years later, Webb teed it up with two 13-year-olds at the U.S. Women’s Open – Wie and Sydney Burlison. Pressel returned that year as a grizzled veteran at age 15. Paula Creamer made her major championship debut at age 16.
Since then, the numbers have been rising.
There were five teenagers in the field at Pine Needles in 2001, then 14 at Pumpkin Ridge in 2003 and 25 teens last year at Newport.
“I think definitely in this country, there’s a premium on picking one sport so that you get a free education,” Webb said.
That would mean a college scholarship, but why bother with college?
Creamer won her first LPGA Tour event a week before her she went through high school commencement. Pressel turned down a scholarship to Duke because she wanted to be a pro and saw no point in waiting.
For Thompson, golf runs in the family.
She was 5 when she first started to play in Coral Gables, Fla., inspired by her brothers. One of them, Nicholas, is on the Nationwide Tour and played in the Walker Cup. Another brother, 17-year-old Curtis, qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur.
She is home-schooled and will be in the seventh grade next year. Her favorite TV shows are “Hannah Montana” and anything on the Disney Channel. In her spare time at Pine Needles, she goes to the pet store to cuddle the cats.
Does she belong at the toughest test in women’s golf?
Pressel only had to go through an 18-hole qualifier to get in six years ago. The USGA brought equity to women’s golf a short time later, so Thompson not only had to make it through an 18-hole local qualifier, but 36 holes of sectional qualifying.
Asked about her expectations this week, Thompson said she would try to post something around 74 or 75, which might be asking a lot on a course where she has to hit fairway metals into the green on at least six of the holes.
“Hopefully, I make the cut,” she said. “If I don’t, it’s all right.”
The only downside for Thompson or any other teenager at the U.S. Women’s Open is to take themselves too seriously. She earned her spot in the field through 54 holes of qualifying, and no one expects much more.
“Just go out and have fun,” Pressel said. “It’s a great experience. It was a great experience for me. I’m sure if we come back here in another six years or so, she’ll hopefully have the same experience, to look back and say, ‘Wow!’ She might not realize it until then, or another five years down the road to just say, ‘Wow, I actually played in this championship when I was 12.’ It’s pretty cool.”
By then, 12 might be considered old.