Not so fast: LPGA shouldn’t bend the rules to let Lexi join their tour

December 6, 2011

Several otherwise reasonable pundits, including at least two of my esteemed colleagues on, have said Lexi Thompson deserves to be the exception to the LPGA tour's minimum-age rule. I'm here to disagree, which is not to say I don't like Lexi, because I do. (And even if I didn't, admitting as much would be like campaigning against Santa Claus. I don't need the e-mails.)

No, my point is that the LPGA has only two defensible options in dealing with Thompson, the 16-year-old who won the Navistar LPGA Classic on Sunday, and one of them should not be to invent some crazy loophole based on the fact that we really like Lexi, or that she's mature or tall, or both, for her age. Or the fact that she is unusually talented, or home-schooled, or employs her dad as her caddie, or that she's now won on the LPGA — or any of the other half-baked reasons I've seen.

Here are the LPGA's only alternatives: Either let Thompson play and dissolve the rule entirely, or don't let her play and start actually enforcing it.

Anything less than one of those two alternatives — a resolution is expected as early as next week, after the Solheim Cup — will make the LPGA and its commissioner, Mike Whan, look desperate and ineffectual.

To recap, Thompson is still, according to the rules, almost 17 months too young to play on the tour. (Minimum age: 18.) She's gotten into tournaments like the Navistar on sponsors' exemptions, and she was allowed to enter the LPGA's three-stage qualifying tournament with the understanding that she'd be allowed to play the circuit if she made it through. She won the first stage by 10 shots, and now, having just won, it would be absurd to play the second and third stages. As Juli Inkster pointed out in The New York Times last week, "I think if she wins this tournament, she's kind of proved that she can play out here. It makes us, the LPGA, look bad [to deny her.]"

If Whan agrees, then he should simply get rid of the age requirement. If he lets Thompson play but keeps the age rule on the books, how long will it be before another under-18 player challenges the rule? Months? Weeks? Hours? And how can the LPGA enforce it for that girl, after caving for Thompson? Age is not a fungible thing. You're either 18 or you're not. Nobody plays the Champions Tour at 49 because, well, he looks old enough, or he's unusually mature for his age.

The minimum age to play on the PGA Tour is also 18. The rule change was announced in the newspapers on Sept. 12, 2001 — perhaps you missed it — just as Ty Tryon was becoming, at 17, the youngest player to make it through Q school.

"There were two reasons for it," says the PGA Tour's vice president of competitions, Tyler Dennis. "One, to ensure Tour members were of the age where they would be mentally and physically prepared for the rigors of life on Tour. And two, we didn't want to encourage young players to leave school early."

As on the LPGA, a player under 18 can accept a sponsor's exemption but can't enjoy the privileges of full Tour membership. And if an underage kid won a tournament on the PGA? Would he be ushered in, rules be damned?

"We have the rule and we'd go by it," Dennis says. "When that guy turned 18, he'd be welcome to come out and use the eligibility he earned for winning."

If and when Whan suspends the age rule for Lexi, he'll have to jettison it entirely or appear opportunistic — the tour has long been desperate for a camera-ready young American. Once it's proven to be full of loopholes, the rule will be almost entirely unenforceable anyway. That's the problem with letting junior golfers play on special exemptions: One of them might actually win.

It's natural to wonder about the efficacy of a minimum-age rule. Sensible parenting might have prevented some of the worst cases of sports burnout, like that of Todd Marinovich, football's chilling cautionary tale, or former tennis prodigy Jennifer Capriati. But would a minimum-age rule have helped, too? Could Tryon have done better if he'd been held back? His career on Tour lasted just one year. Given the relentless hype that envelops prodigies, the often harsh psychodramas inherent to professional golf, and the sport's gaping-wide career window — Tom Watson nearly won the British Open at age 59 — it seems sensible to retain a minimum age for both major U.S. pro tours. And the only way to retain the rule is to enforce it, starting now.

Thompson will turn 17 on Feb. 10. She's still a high school senior, and so presumably wouldn't be able to devote her full attention to the LPGA until after graduation. She can still accept up to six sponsors' exemptions, and can play in the U.S. Women's Open and Ricoh Women's British Open if she qualifies for them. We'll have ample opportunities to see her play even if she remains a non-member, as she should.

What's the hurry? Kudos to her for winning at age 16; here's hoping she has a long, fruitful career.