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The Youngest Golfers to Play on Tour

By: | Fri 23 Aug 2019 | Comments

Golf has often been perceived as a game for older people, but emerging youngsters on tour have historically defied that long-standing stereotype. The latest example is that of Michelle Liu, who at the tender age of just 12 years, nine months and six days, is competing at the LPGA Tour's Canadian Women's Open.

The Vancouver native qualified for the event via the Canadian Women's Amateur in July, shattering the record of compatriot Brooke Henderson, who played in her home championship aged a comparatively senior 14 in 2012. 

Speaking ahead of her history making appearance, Liu said: "I'd say crazy is a good word for it."

Crazy, indeed, but not entirely unprecedented.

Had not been for the Canadian, greater attention may have been placed upon the Ladies European Tour debut of Slovenia's Pia Babnik at the Czech Ladies Open. The 15-year-old won the R&A Girls' Amateur Championship last week at Panmure, which has opened doors to Women's Amateur Championship and Augusta National Women's Amateur. 

The teenager has been prolific, playing off a handicap of +6.2, and will compete in the upcoming Junior Solheim Cup. Having already played a selection of LET Access events, Babink has tasted the professional scene, but a LET sanctioned tournament is another milestone in a career that is already one to follow.

But the stories of Liu and Babnik got us thinking of past examples of young people competing on tour.

Just in May, we saw 14-year-old Chinese golfer Kuang Yang play in the European Tour's Volvo China Open. Remarkably, he made the halfway cut, comfortably beating many circuit stalwarts in the process, to become the second youngest golfer to make the weekend in a European Tour sanctioned event. Guan Tianlang was a month younger at the Masters in 2013.

If it can feel like Sergio Garcia has been around forever, there is good reason. The Spaniard was 15 when he made the cut at the Turespana Masters in 1995. Italy's Matteo Manassero was something of a prodigy, winning on the European Tour aged just 17 years and 288 days. Additionally, he was only 16 when finishing in a tie for 13th in the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry, claiming the Silver Medal in the process.

Two decades earlier, Justin Rose hadn't yet turned 18 when he memorably finished fourth at Royal Birkdale in 1998. Turning back the clock further, future two-time major champion Sandy Lyle qualified for the Open months after celebrating his 16th birthday in 1974.

When it comes to golf records, Tiger Woods is usually around somewhere, with the great man first embarking on his legendary professional career when playing in the 1992 L.A. Open at the age of 16. You even remember several years ago when Andy Zhang played in the U.S. Open at the age of 14, making history at San Francisco's Olympic Club.

The exploits of Young Tom Morris in the 19th century are famous, and there is the astonishing case - reported by Brent Kelley - of 11-year-old Don Dunkelberger who received an invite to play in the 1937 Chicago Open. The boy withdrew from the tournament after shooting an opening round of 103.

Back to the women's game, a frequent stage for teenage golfers, Michelle Wie was thrust into the spotlight at an early age, being invited to compete in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in 2004 at the age of 14, where he she missed the cut by a shot. Former world number one Lydia Ko won the LPGA's Canadian Open in 2012 aged 15 years, four months and three days. She astonishingly defended the title 12 months later, perhaps one of the most underrated feats in the game's history.

The New Zealander won a total of six times on the circuit before her 18th birthday, while Lexi Thompson and the aforementioned Brooke Henderson both secured victories on the LPGA Tour when still of high school age. Looking back to over a decade ago, Morgan Pressel claimed a major title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship when only 18 years, ten months and nine days old. Several years previously, in 2001, Pressel qualified to play in the U.S. Women's Open when she was only 12, as Thompson later did in 2007.

But none of these incredible achievements stand as the record. Five years ago at Pinehurst, 11-year-old Lucy Li made it through sectional qualifying at the U.S. Women's Open. Decades earlier, LPGA icon Judy Rankin did similar at 14, but it was Beverly Klass who set the standard by playing when she was 10 in 1967. Unfathomable.

Questions will understandably be raised about how healthy it is for teenagers and children to be playing at this level, but that is a debate that has raged for many decades, just as long as have seen age defying youngsters continue to emerge on tour.

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