- Roy S. Johnson, Contributing writer, ESPN.com
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Mike Whan is no dummy. Though not for the reason you may think.
Last week, the LPGA commissioner granted the petition of 16-year-old phenom Lexi Thompson to join the LPGA Tour two years short of its required age minimum. The standard was long ago instituted to protect young girls from the rigors of professionalism, and the sport from having to babysit.
Waiving that rule was the right move, despite my belief in minimum age restrictions in pro sports.
Though not for the reason you may think.
Thompson is poised, pretty and pretty darned good. And oh yeah, she's American. The easy second-guessing call is that Wahn stamped her petition because the tour needs her to be The One in order to regain relevance with a U.S. audience tired of waiting on Michelle Wie and less able or willing to root for any of the myriad talented golfers from Asia atop the leaderboard.
In fact, the LPGA doesn't need Thompson to be its Tiger (how long will I have to clarify with "pre-scandal" Tiger?) as much we might think -- at least not right now. Sure, the women's game still lacks a star of the stature of Annika Sorenstam or Lorena Ochoa. Yet all but two of the players in the top 10 are in their 20s, (average age: a tad over 26), and four are American (same as in the men's rankings).
"If you're the commissioner of any sport," Whan told me on Tuesday, "one thing you worry about is, 'Do I have a crop of young stars almost ready to grab the baton, or are my stars heading to retirement?' I don't spend a lot of time worrying because most of my best players are under 30. Add Lexi to that, and [No. 1] Yani [Tseng] is 22. Michelle Wie, at 21, has her best golf ahead. I've got some pretty good baton takers coming along."
Whan is smart because he made granting Thompson's petition a tap-in gimme by forcing her to earn her way onto the tour.
That seed was planted in December when Whan denied Thompson's request to play in up to 12 LPGA tournaments in 2011 under sponsor exemptions -- double the number allowed non-members. Had he granted it, the engaging 5-foot-11 teen would have certainly been showered with more invites to dance than a head cheerleader. She had turned pro without tour membership the previous June and finished 10th at the U.S. Women's Open (which she qualified for) and second at the Evian Masters. Playing just a handful of tournaments, she earned more than $300,000.
Despite that quick success, Whan had the temerity to tell Thompson's team: "Not yet." He told them, however, that the sport was relaxing rules for participants in Monday qualifiers and Q-school, essentially granting Thompson "the opportunity to prove" she belonged on tour. "I said, 'If you can [play on tour], you will," he said. "I think [her parents and agent] were ready a year ago, but I'm not sure she was ready a year ago."
This year, Thompson has played like many a mid-level handicapper -- some good rounds, some horrendous. Whan watched most of them, especially the horrendous ones, particularly a final-round 78 in May at the Avnet LPGA Classic in Mobile, Ala. Thompson woke up Sunday morning tied for the lead. She finished tied for 19th, nine strokes behind the winner.
In the wake of that abysmal day Wahn saw something that told him this young golfer just might be ready. "She was honest with herself, the media and fans," the commish said. "She was disappointed. Said she can play better. It happens. She didn't wilt, didn't run to the car, avoid the media tent or ignore the people with Sharpies. She signed all the autographs and said it was part of golf. She didn't change her demeanor or approach. I'm not sure I would have handled it the same way."
In July, Thompson blew away the field in Stage 1 of Q-school, winning by 10 strokes. The second of three stages was to be played in late September. But just prior, her prodigious talent caught up with her precocious nature. She won the Navistar Classic by five strokes, becoming the youngest LPGA Tour event winner ever -- by two years.
Based on that win, Thompson again petitioned for LPGA acceptance. This time, Whan, in what might be among the more scrutinized decisions of his two-year tenure, said "yes."
"It's been a nice process," he said. "I haven't been doing this job a long time. But it seemed strange to get a letter saying, 'I'd like to be an LPGA member, and here's why.' We set rules for a reason. If we're going to step outside those rules, that was the kind of comfort we need. To earn your way onto the tour the old-fashioned way, especially if you're under our age regulation, is good for the tour and the player."
But is she good enough? That remains to be seen.
She'll face tough overseas competition (potentially on courses far from home). Since recovering from the English-language rules fiasco of 2008 under previous commissioner Carolyn Bivens, the tour's diversity has allowed it to grow internationally.
"I missed that wave," Whan said (though he left out: thankfully!). "When I came in, I said, 'Hey guys, we're a business going global. One thing constant among any business going global is mistakes.' No CEO who's taken their business global sits back and says, 'Man that is easy.'"
The next stops are South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Mexico, and a crop of young Americans, including Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Wie, is showing up on Sundays more often than in recent years.
Whan is convinced Thompson is ready to join them. And for now that's good enough.
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.
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