Eubanks: How young is too young?

Guan Tian-Lang, Steve Eubanks, China Open
Getty Images
Guan Tian-Lang made history by playing in the China Open at age 13.
Steve Eubanks

Series: Eubanks

Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | 7:52 p.m.

Golf made history last week. But it was the uneasy kind, the sort of unwelcome milestone that makes you furrow your brow and pause before offering an opinion.

At the China Open in Tianjin, a coastal town southeast of Beijing, Guan Tian-Lang, a native of Guangzhou, shot unremarkable rounds of 77 and 79 to miss the cut. He finished in a two-way tie for 150th, beating only four players (five if you count Hennie Otto who withdrew after an opening round of 73).

But that is not why Guan garnered headlines. He was in the news because he is 13 years old, looks eight, and with an average tee shot that travels less than 250 yards, is shorter off the tee than 81 players on the LPGA tour. But, through solid play and a little gerrymandering of the qualifying process by a willfully enthusiastic Chinese organizing body, Guan became the youngest golfer ever to play in an event on a major men's professional tour.

"I can't tell you how excited I am to play in my national open," the boy said in broken English to a swarm of reporters.

Of that there was no doubt. Who wouldn't be excited? He thought he'd missed qualifying by a single shot, but then, miraculously, one of the qualifiers above him received a sponsor's exemption, and viola!, Guan made the field. He was obviously thrilled.

But skydiving is exciting, too. That doesn't mean you let a child do it.

Guan's presence in his homeland's biggest golf event dredges up the age-old question: how young is too young? And when does allowing a child into a professional event cross the line between legitimate opportunity and unsavory exploitation?

Having kids in tour events is nothing new, but it is usually girls grabbing the spotlight. Aree Song finished 10th in the Kraft Nabisco Championship at age 13, and Michelle Wie missed the cut at the Sony Open of Hawaii on the PGA Tour by a single shot as a 14-year-old.

Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson both qualified for the U.S. Women's Open at age 12. Pressel later became the youngest woman ever to win a major, while Thompson became the youngest winner of an LPGA event last year at 16.

Earlier this year 14-year-old New Zealander Lydia Ko became the youngest player ever to win a professional event when she captured the New South Wales Open.

A lot of people have no problem with these juniors competing at the highest level. Golf is, after all, the ultimate meritocracy. Shoot the lowest score and you win whether you are 13 or 33. Plus, there are more talented youngsters now than at any time in the game's history. Let them compete, or so the argument goes.

But this is about more than numbers on a scoreboard. A 13-year-old who can shoot in the 60s is still a child.

"What is the rush?" said Barry Goldstein, a teaching professional in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I see a lot of these kids who are being hurried through the junior and amateur ranks, being pushed to turn pro as early as possible, and it makes me nervous. There is a cost associated with this."

Goldstein should know. In addition to teaching a lot of quality juniors, his daughter Carly is one of the highest ranked juniors in the country.

"I live down the street from Lexi Thompson and have known her dad since before we had children," Goldstein said. "My first thought as a dad, not as a golf pro, is that these kids are giving up a lot of their childhoods. So when people ask me why my daughter is not going to play on the tour when she's 18, I always tell them (the LPGA) is still going to be there when she's 22. There's no hurry."

Despite being 5'6" with the muscle development of a fourth grader, Guan's golf skills are unquestioned. He won the Junior World in San Diego by 11 shots after shooting an opening 63. But golf is all Guan has ever done. His father, a wealthy interior designer who took up the game in the Tiger era and admired Earl Woods, put a club in young Guan's hands at age four. By six, the boy was competing around the globe.

"If you look back at the history of golf, the players who were great at 16 and 17 are not the ones who had great careers," Goldstein said. "There are always exceptions, like Tiger, but most people who end up being the most successful go to college, grow up, and learn how to live their lives.

"There is an old expression: early ripe, often rotten. If someone is ripe early, that doesn't mean they are going to have a great career. As a father, when you're throwing your child into a situation where there is a lot of pressure and you're competing against adults, it just seems abnormal to me."

From Jennifer Capriati to Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, whose father kept her on the putting green after dark at age nine until she made ten ten-footers in a row, lots of child prodigies peak early, especially those with pushy parents.

Many reach a breaking point where they either hate the game or hate their parents. In some cases they hate both.

"Designating children as gifted, especially extremely gifted, and cultivating that giftedness may be not only a waste of money, but positively harmful," writes Allissa Quart, author of "Hothouse Kids: the Dilemma of the Gifted Child."

"The over-cultivated can develop self-esteem problems and performance anxiety."

That is especially evident in a sport like golf where burnout is a huge problem.

"I have a friend who tells Carly all the time, 'Lexi took the elevator and you're taking the stairs,'" Goldstein said. "That's true. They're both going to end up in the same spot, but the stairs are more fun because you can see the view."

Then in a moment of reflection he summed up the fear of every parent of a gifted golfing child.

"I just wonder how many of those kids thrown into that kind of situation are happy," he said. "Because, there are so many more Ty Tryon stories than there are Lexi Thompson stories."