With 15-year-old Lydia Ko’s brilliant performance at last week’s Women’s Australian Open fresh in the minds of the golfing public, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the best teenage phenoms in the few-hundred-year history of golf.
There is an unabashed bias in this list towards players who have gone on to great professional success. The inclusion of any golfers who have fizzled out on the professional level (Michelle Wie, for example) is only a product of the tremendous hype and mythmaking that surrounded their stellar play as teenagers.
Without further ado, then, the top 10 teen phenoms in golf history.
Technically, Francis Ouimet wasn’t a teenager when he won the 1913 U.S. Open, but he was close! The former caddie was 20 years old when he triumphed at The Country Club in historic fashion over the legendary Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
The magnitude of Ouimet’s upset victory in the history of golf in the United States cannot be overstated. As several books and movies have already been devoted to the subject, it’s sufficient to say that young Ouimet, while not a “teen phenom” per se, played arguably the biggest part of any young person in the story of American golf.
The teen phenom of the moment, Lydia Ko, already the top female amateur in the world, sent shockwaves through the golf world with her victory at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open. Ko, 15 at the time, became the youngest winner of an LPGA Tour event.
Ko shot an opening-round 63 at the Women’s Australian Open last week and nearly won the event, eventually falling to a third-place finish. Overall, she has three professional wins and is only 15.
Great things are certainly ahead for the teen phenom.
Michelle Wie, the teen phenom with arguably the highest expectations in recent memory, has been an almost total disappointment in her professional career thus far. Now 23, Wie has won twice on the LPGA Tour—for a golfer who was expected to compete against men and potentially play on the PGA Tour, her present record is a letdown.
Wie was a phenom before she was a teenager, qualifying for the Women’s Public Links Championship when she was 10. In 2004, at the age of 14, she played in a PGA Tour event and missed the cut by a stroke. Further, she finished in the top 10 of all four LPGA majors by the age of 16.
Fast forward seven years, and few would have expected Wie to have such relatively limited success.
The Bashful Prince, now 21, hasn’t had tremendous success on the PGA Tour. He did, however, dominate the Japanese tour as a teenager, winning his first tournament at the age of 15.
By the time he was 19, Ishikawa had already amassed nine wins in Japan. He played in the Presidents Cup when he was only 17. Additionally, he shot a competitive 58 in 2010 and has shown tremendous promise.
He’s only made the cut in 24 of the 48 PGA Tour events he’s competed in and has only collected four top 10s. It is, however, too soon to label the 12-time international winner a bust.
She only just turned 18, but Lexi Thompson is already one of the biggest stars on the LPGA Tour. Thompson successfully petitioned the LPGA to waive the minimum age requirement so that she could play on the tour at age 17. The result? Four top-10 finishes in 2012.
Thompson became the youngest winner ever on the LPGA Tour with her 2011 victory at the Navistar LPGA Classic and is the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open—which she did at the grand old age of 12. Further, she was a dominant force at every level of women’s/girls’ amateur golf and is poised to continue her success at the professional level.
Manassero, the only teenager to ever win three European Tour titles, has already, at age 19, had a fantastic career.
As a piece in Golf Digest mentions:
Among the Italian sensation's age-related accomplishments are being the youngest player to ever win the British Amateur Championship, the youngest to make the cut at the Masters and the youngest to win a European Tour event.
The often-overlooked Mr. McDermott makes this list for two simple reasons: He was the first U.S. golfer to win the United States Open, and he remains the youngest-ever winner of that event.
McDermott, who was 19 when he won his first of two U.S. Open titles in 1911, stoked the fire that became a roaring blaze with Francis Ouimet’s 1913 U.S. Open success.
The No. 1 golfer in the world was the first player in the world under the age of 20 to crack the Top 20 of the Official World Golf Rankings. Rory won his first European Tour event at 19, and stories of his early development have taken on the qualities of myth—for example, the tale of him sleeping with his favorite club as a child, while gripping it properly in his young hands.
The phenom’s resume as a teenager is staggering. He was the youngest winner ever (at age 16) of the Irish Close Championship and the winner of the European Amateur the next year. At age 16, he made the cut in a European Tour event and, additionally, was the low amateur at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
McIlroy won his first professional event in 2009, the Dubai Desert Classic, while still a teenager and finished in a tie for 20th at the Masters that same year.
More importantly, though, McIlory, already a multiple major winner, seems well on his way to capitalizing on the promise he showed as a teen phenom.
Old Tom’s golfing progeny died at only 24. Prior to that, though, the younger Morris had a superior golf career. Reportedly, Morris played in professional tournaments at age 13 and won his first pro tournament at the tender age of 16. In 1864, Morris became the youngest participant in the Open Championship. The next year, he did more than just enter the championship; he won it—at just 17 years old.
Morris followed up his early success with four consecutive Open victories. Ultimately, he won a total of four of the eight championships that he entered. Surely, he would have gone on to win many more were it not for his untimely death. Many teen phenoms fizzle out and leave us to wonder, “What might have been?”
With Morris, that question looms all the larger.
The greatest amateur of them all, Bobby Jones, was also a formidable teen phenom. Jones made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur when he was only 14. He eventually won the event five times before retiring from competitive golf at only 28 years of age.
Prior to his emergence in 1916, Jones dominated the junior circuit in and around his native Georgia. He won the Southern Amateur in 1917 and again in 1920—both before his 20th birthday. Jones qualified for his first U.S. Open at the age of 18.
Of course, Jones' greatest success didn’t come until he was in his 20s when he won the Grand Slam in 1930.
Both because of his success as a teenager and his record since, Tiger Woods is the greatest teen phenom of them all.
Woods was a phenom well before he reached his teenage years. He made his famous appearance on The Mike Douglas Show at only two years of age. In his junior career, Woods won over 200 tournaments prior to winning three consecutive U.S. Junior titles, followed by three U.S. Amateur titles in a row.
There’s no adequate way to put into words Woods’ dominance as a teenager. And his record since—75 PGA Tour victories, including 14 majors—positions him to become, in addition to the most phenomenal teenage golfer, the greatest golfer of all time.