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Youth brings new energy to LPGA

If you ask a dozen people why so many young girls are getting into the game of golf these days, you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. Some will credit increased television exposure, or golf’s around-the-world popularity, or today’s equipment technology, or the number of incredibly talented players on the LPGA Tour, or maybe even golf becoming an Olympic sport in 2016.
Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that more young women are attracted to the game than ever before-despite dominant players Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa putting away their clubs to have families. It’s pretty obvious that more parents are encouraging their daughters to check out the game, hoping they’ll get hooked.
A new generation of stars has stepped up: Yani Tseng, at age 23 becoming the youngest player to win five major championships, including the Wegmans LPGA; Lexi Thompson, who at age 12 became the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open and at 16 became the youngest player ever to win an LPGA event, the 2011 Navistar Classic; and Michelle Wie, who made the 36-hole cut in the 2003 Kraft Nabisco Championship at age 13, youngest ever to do so in a tour event.
Thompson, still a teenager at 17, has turned everybody’s head, even that of golf great Nancy Lopez. "I think she’s the real deal," Lopez said, "and there are not that many who come out like she does and for (her parents) to keep her doing her school stuff and playing on the LPGA Tour. She’s that good, and I think she’s going to dominate eventually. Lexi has a good head on her shoulders."
Like Thompson, most or all of the LPGA’s best players started swinging golf clubs when they were so young they still loved watching TV shows like "Dora the Explorer."
According to the LPGA’s website, both Wie and Natalie Gulbis took up the game when they were 4, two years younger than was Yani Tseng, now the tour’s top player. Cristie Kerr, Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel started playing when they were 8, Paula Creamer when she was 10.
Of course, golf is not a game that appeals to everyone. Lopez said none of her three daughters really got into the game, despite their mom’s 48 tour victories. "My oldest (plays)," she said in a phone interview, "but she doesn’t play a bunch. She has a real job, so she has to work."
Of course, Lopez hoped her children would take golf more seriously.
"I wanted them to try it, and they weren’t interested," she said. "You can’t make them like it, and I wasn’t going to make them play the game just because I played it. And I think nowadays kids don’t have the time to spend on the golf course unless they have friends that play. I don’t think there’s anybody who kind of likes golf; you either love it or hate it."
Given the incredible number of young female stars playing professional golf worldwide now, love seems to be winning out over hate. "I think they have a great influence," Lopez said. "You see all these little girls coming out with their parents, and their parents try to introduce them to golf and they find somebody they can kind of relate with.
"A lot of little girls come out and watch Paula (Creamer). They want somebody to follow, and they can connect with somebody like Paula or Yani, who’s a great little player and a great person."
As Commissioner Michael Whan has said repeatedly, the LPGA Tour has gone "global." Given all that talent from all those countries, it is quite true, and Lopez says that’s a good thing.
"The (number of) international players is not a problem," Lopez said. "It’s definitely good for the game. Everything is international now-business, life and golf.
"Look at all the Korean players. They’re just allreally good people, and they play the game with a lot of integrity and sportsmanlike conduct and we just need to root for them, too."
No doubt the global golf fire is inspiring many kids all over the United States, and no doubt it will not only keep burning but grow. Darlene Sommer, the director of golf at Champion Hills Country Club in Victor, says that’s a given.
"We’re seeing more (young girls playing) because of role models, like Nancy Lopezes and Paula Creamers," Sommer said. And, she added, especially Creamer now. "The kids are brought to her, and she’s very good with the kids. She really does pay attention to them when she goes to tournament tour sites, and I think a lot of it is her pink (golf clothes) and pink panther theme. She dresses the part; she’s into makeup and all the things little girls are into."
With Creamer and other players inspiring young girls to fall in love with golf, many more young are staying with the game, which often can be difficult in this day and age.
Our Lady of Mercy High School golf coach Julie Odenbach put it simply: "Whatever it takes to get them interested in golf. And they don’t need a lot of lessons. They usually pick it up pretty easily. Girls want to have friends to play with." She agrees with Sommer: "Golf is social."
Other players on the tour also go out of their way to inspire youngsters to take up the game. Danielle Fuss, a star player at Mercy High, puts Gulbis at the top of her list.
"Every year when they come to Locust Hill, a bunch of the (LPGA) players go to Oak Hill and play the course there," said Fuss, whose parents are members at Oak Hill. "(Gulbis) hit balls next to me on the range, and I got to talk to her. And the next year she was on the putting green at Oak Hill. I was there putting, too, and she came up to me and asked me if I remembered her. That was really neat."
Fuss said she started playing golf when she was 4. "My dad played, and I just picked up a club and have been playing ever since."
She plans to play college golf, hopeful-ly at a Division I school, but at this point she doesn’t want to play professionally. "I would be a teaching pro instead of just playing," she said.
Then there’s Maddie McCrary, a high school star in Wylie, Texas, who started taking golf lessons at age 5 when a neighbor introduced her to the sport.
"My parents took me to a spring-break golf camp, and I fell in love with it," she said. "No, my parents do not play."
McCrary, who will be a junior next fall, has won several tournaments and is high on some prominent Division I colleges’ recruiting lists. Her goal is to play D-1 college golf and then move on to the LPGA Tour.
"I watch (the LPGA) a lot," she said, "how I can learn from it-how they hit it, how to compare my swing to their swing."
Sommer’s junior program starts for girls at age 5. "And every once in a while, a parent will sneak in a 4-year-old if they can," she said. "I think 7 or 8 years is a very good age, but if they want to and the parents are pushing them, then 5 is a good age."
Odenbach agreed that the key is getting a young girl interested in golf and keeping her there.
"Take her out to the driving range one time, let her hit some shots and see if it’s something that excites her," Sommer said. "The key for parents is to make sure they go with them, even take them to the putting green and play little putting greens. And once they learn this game, it’s a game for life."   

6/1/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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