Exception made for exceptional

Tracy AustinJennifer Capriati

That 12-day lag time notwithstanding, Mike Whan acknowledges it wasn't a tough call to welcome Lexi Thompson as the LPGA's youngest member in 44 years.

The commissioner's pivotal decision actually had come in June, when Thompson was given the green light to enter the LPGA's qualifying process at age 16.

That's when Whan determined the Florida teen would be treated as any 18-and-older hopeful. When Thompson won her way into the tour's record book by capturing the Navistar LPGA Classic, it simply eliminated the intermediate steps.

If anything, Thompson's triumph validated the June decision. But future teen applicants shouldn't see the door as open any wider.

"What I didn't want to do was create a precedent where young players around the world start streaming into the commissioner's office," Whan said after signing off on Thompson's final membership petition.

"I don't want young players in their freshman and sophomore years of high school trying to contemplate, 'What do I do, finish high school or go pro?' I've said no to petitions maybe 50 times and yes to one."

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Pressed on the number, Whan admitted it's more like a dozen requests he has had to turn down. Factor in that he has been in the job not quite two years, though, and it's not an insignificant amount.

There are talented teens out there with big dreams. And perhaps Whan's biggest nightmare is that any floodgates open on his watch.

It bears comparison to women's tennis in the late 1980s, when an influx of teens came onto the landscape. Injuries left Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger essentially done by age 21; Jennifer Capriati lasted longer but not without personal detours.

The WTA now has a structure that allows players to test the waters at age 14 but limits their entries each year until they turn 18.

The LPGA has had an 18-year age minimum since 1968, one year after Beverly Klass played as a 10-year-old pro. She played four events in 1967 and made one cut before tour officials stepped in.

That's when the talent pool was thin. Now, the U.S. Women's Open is populated with perhaps two dozen teens. There will be a handful who earn LPGA cards this year at 18 or 19.

Whan certainly sees this. He also sees that most of those 18- and 19-year-olds need some extra seasoning. For every Paula Creamer or Morgan Pressel that wins quickly, there are many more fighting to keep their cards as they adjust to the rigors of pro life.

And it's why Thompson's off-course adaptation might have been judged as heavily as her position on the leaderboard.

"I've always been impressed by the way she'd handled herself inside the ropes," Whan said, "but what I've really watched is the maturity to be able to handle all the other aspects of being a touring pro — which is just as important, as far as I'm concerned."

In that sense, Thompson was more than a test case. For those who choose that path, hers might be the model to follow.

jshain@tribune.com

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