Ko's early success sparks debate

Lydia Ko, of New Zealand, hits her second shot on the eighth hole during the final round of the LPGA Tour's Canadian …The British Open is underway at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, with 15-year-old Lydia Ko a member of the field.

Ko, who won the Canadian Open to become the LPGA's youngest winner ever, seemed excited for the challenge: "I have had an amazing summer, and I feel it can only get better." But as an ESPN-W piece by Lewine Mair points out, that kind of success at Ko's age may have its downside. Ko has admitted that she's had to forego typical teen activities in favor of golf and practice. Ko's not the only adolescent in the tournament, either – Lexi Thompson, who had held the record for youngest winner, is still just 17, the UK's Charley Hull 16 – and the presence of these prodigies does raise some questions as to how hard they're pushed, how fast, and whether players "getting better sooner" is worth it.

Previous "generations" of young golfers prioritized school and "regular" life. Today, young golfers like Ko may treat it more like a job – a full-time one that leaves less room in their schedules for homework. Ko works on golf 40 hours a week, and misses weeks of school each year; Hull and Thompson get their schooling at home. More to the point, it sounds like Ko might just as much miss socializing and fun. The teen golf genius from ten years ago, Michelle Wie, hung out with school friends at home in Hawaii and at Stanford, but Ko's world is more circumscribed. Mair's article quotes Ko as saying that she'd love to head to the movies with friends on a Saturday night, "but that happens really like once a year or a couple of times."

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Ko could end up at Stanford herself, but apparently the scuttlebutt is that she's going pro as soon as next year – which retired champ Annika Sorenstam believes will lower the fun quotient even further. Sorenstam, a 10-major winner, told Mair by phone that "There are no prizes for the being the youngest on tour. … You want to enjoy your 'young' time. Once you turn professional, it's serious." How young is too young? "When you're so young that you need an entourage, you're too young.

Sorenstam herself had two years of college before going pro at age 22, so there may be a little of the old "that's how I did it so that's how it's done" in her comments – and contemporaries of Ko's on the men's European Tour think Ko is "tour ready." Matteo Manassero of Italy turned pro at 17, though not everyone was in favor of it; now 19, he told Mair that, if a teen is good and wants to take on the pros, "that is all right," but it depends on the young player's personality. Keeping your head down is key, he said, and he thinks Ko would get that: "If I had acted like a pest it would have been bad, but from what I have seen, there is no downside. I didn't miss my childhood."

Tom Lewis of the UK wishes her luck, but he hasn't had the best of it himself since turning pro as a 20-year-old last year; he's won a title since then, but has also struggled. He talked about the media "heap[ing] a lot of expectations on" Ko, but added that, long-term, "It's a great thing to have proved to yourself that you have what it takes to win."

Hindsight is 20-20, of course; if Ko does go pro in the short term, maybe she'll regret the decision, or go on to a long and glorious career. More generally, though, the success of such young athletes raises a lot of questions for parents and coaches – what's more important, achieving at a young age and committing to that achievement; or maintaining more of a balance with "normal" activities (or no activities)? If parents insist on not pushing too hard, could that cost their kids a shot at greatness down the road? Should young athletes be allowed to choose to go pro, and can they be relied on to make the best long-term decisions for themselves? My own parents shouldn't have let me pick my own eye shadow when I was that age, so heaven knows what would have become of me as a pro athlete.

Do you have a super-talented kid who's forcing you to face these issues? Were you a super-talented athlete yourself? Should pro sports have a minimum age cut-off? Share your perspectives in the comments.

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