News & Opinion

Teen phenoms find no guarantees as pros

Seventeen-year-old Akshay Bhatia made his professional debut last week at the PGA Tour event in Mississippi

Seventeen-year-old Akshay Bhatia made his professional debut last week at the PGA Tour event in Mississippi, where he missed the cut (70-74) and revived one of mankind’s most enduring arguments: how young is too young? From the teenage boys who lied about their age to fight in World War II (imagine that now) to some hotshot phenom who thinks he’s ready for the big leagues, the precociousness of youth always has clashed with the sensibilities of those in the generation ahead of it.

Adults think they have all the answers. Kids know they do. Insert smirk here.

American Akshay Bhatia pictured during the Walker Cup
American Akshay Bhatia, pictured during the Walker Cup matches earlier this month, lasts only 2 days in his professional debut at the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship.

Bhatia was an ultra-decorated amateur who collected trophies instead of baseball cards. Earlier this month, he became the youngest American ever to compete in the Walker Cup. He won nearly every tournament that matters on the junior circuit, which hardly makes his decision to skip college and turn pro any less bold. Golf’s junkyard is full of adolescent world-beaters who became unabashed flops once they started playing for money.

Ty Tryon and Matteo Manassero, currently ranked No. 1,123 in the world, immediately come to mind. Dozens upon dozens of others with lesser credentials have attempted the leap and failed. When a father approached me maybe 10 years ago and asked if I thought his son, the club champion at age 18, should try to make a living off his game, there was no sugar-coating the response. “If you have to ask,” I said, “the answer is probably no.”

The flipside, however, offers a much stronger case: turning pro in your teens isn’t the career-threatening lunge some make it out to be. Sergio Garcia took the expressway to stardom almost immediately upon joining the European Tour at 19, winning his sixth pro start before taking Tiger Woods to the wire at the PGA Championship that summer. I had covered Garcia’s U.S. pro debut in Dallas a few months earlier. The buzz reverberating from his presence was immense, which is what happens when hundreds of high school girls show up at a golf tournament and hang outside the clubhouse to lay eyes on the hot new thing.

Tryon had that same magnetism, but he flamed out almost as fast as he had arrived. For all his physical tools, an obvious lack of maturity prevented the kid from even scratching his promise. Callaway gave Tryon a huge equipment deal when he qualified for the Tour at the end of 2001. His career was basically over two years later, leaving us with a cautionary tale and proof that potential can disguise itself as life’s greatest curse.

Given the 600 percent increase in prize money since Tiger Woods began driving the bus almost a quarter-century ago, it’s a small wonder that there aren’t more high-profile failures. Nobody blows through the warning signs in pursuit of the dollar signs with more gusto than an aspiring alpha male, but the Tryons remain rare. Jason Day turned pro at 18, and though it took a few years for the chiseled Aussie to find his way, his 12 Tour victories and $45.7 million in earnings suggest the decision was a prudent one.

Rory McIlroy? Too good to bother with college. If there are times when he seems too good for his own good, prone to lapses in on-course judgment and a certain indifference to his disappearing at big events, you don’t win four major titles before your 25th birthday unless you get started early. Guys that talented just know they’re better than everyone else.

Adam Scott spent about 15 minutes at UNLV before ditching the books and heading to Europe, where he honed his craft to become the player he is today. Kevin Na fled to the Asian Tour in 2001 after his junior year of high school, earned his PGA Tour card three years later and never looked back. If you’re good enough to win the European Amateur at the ridiculous age of 15, as Garcia did in 1995, the concept of higher education can translate into lost income, even if it takes a while to get airborne.

In that context, it’s silly to think that Bhatia is making a mistake. You can spend four years playing college golf, become a three-time All-American and win an NCAA championship, all of which adds up to diddly-squat once you start competing against the big boys. Pro golf demands that you sing for your supper, at least in the developmental stages of a career, to which one might deduce that getting started early is a good thing.

A lot of teenage tour pros have succeeded. Some haven’t. You could say the same of the best collegiate players over the past 20 years. If you’re looking for a guarantee, go see a car salesman.

When the 17-year-old Tryon made it through Q-School in the fall of 2001, the Tour moved quickly to impose an age restriction of 18 in regard to full-time membership. The LPGA adheres to the same general policy, although Lexi Thompson (2011) and Lydia Ko (2013) are among those who were granted waivers to the rule. Both have gone on to enjoy highly successful careers, certainly more so than Michelle Wie, the poster child of prodigies who has just five victories in 269 LPGA starts.

That said, Wie remains one of the most influential golfers of her generation. She wasn’t so much a pioneer as she was a sign of the times, an ambitious, exquisitely talented young woman who wasn’t all that interested in following the herd. Youth has a habit of making a difference, whether we old-timers like it or not.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com