Tiny Thai, aged 11, has big future if she avoids Wie pitfalls

Ariya Jutanukarn yesterday made history as the youngest golfer to play in a tour event but, says James Corrigan, the precedents are disturbing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If any optimists in the golfing world were under the impression that the story of Michelle Wie would be held up as a salutary lesson for all future bobby-socked wannabes and their ambitious parents to follow, then it seems they are sadly mistaken. For if events in Pattaya, at the Honda LPGA Thailand yesterday, are anything to go by the trend on the fairways looks like getting younger, not older.

Ariya Jutanukarn became the youngest golfer to qualify for and appear in a major international tour event – male or female – when beating Wie's mark by five months. The tiny Thai cannot even claim to be a teenager; she is 11 years, 11 months and two days. But the schoolgirl showed remarkable maturity to post a 75, to stand at three-over in this fully fledged American tour event that includes some of the biggest names in women's golf, including Annika Sorenstam and Laura Davies.

Jutanukarn might be some 10 shots off the leader, Norway's Suzann Pettersen, but is far from embarrassing herself. In the field of 60 that is battling it out for a prize fund of more than £700,000, there are 19 professionals currently level or behind the junior amateur. What made Ariya's big-time debut even more alluring for the majority of the sizeable crowd was her 13-year-old sister carrying her bag in matching clothes. Moriya is a fine golfer in her own right, narrowly missing out in qualifying earlier this week.

"She knows more than my dad and that's why I asked her to caddie," Ariya said of her sister, who is only slightly taller than the hefty bag she is lugging around the 6,392-yard course. "There were a lot of people watching and there was a lot of pressure, but it was a chance for me to get experience, play with the top players and show people what I can do. I feel very excited. It's great to make history."

The parallels with Wie are obvious despite the Hawaiian having a reputed $10m (£5m) in annual sponsorships and Ariya bearing the logo of a local dried fish snacks company on her visor. Her father, Somboon, certainly sounded like a man after B J Wie's heart, if not his business acumen, as he spoke enthusiastically of the professional future of his daughters. "I have a couple of future top 10 players here and I'm really proud," he said.

The cynics will no doubt roll their eyes at his comments, particularly in the light of Wie's current plight. Last week, her coach David Leadbetter joined the queue to criticise her advisers – i.e. her parents – following a season in which her reputation plummeted as she missed a whole series of cuts and assembled a catalogue of controversy. "If she hadn't played those men's tournaments, then everybody would have considered 2006 her best season yet," said Leadbetter, referring to the end-of-season embarrassments she suffered last year. "It was absolute madness for her to play them. That started the whole débâcle. You feel like this is the Titanic."

The world-renowned swing guru also felt obliged to pass comment on Team Wie's plan to carry on playing alongside men next year, as well as compete in the women's game and continue her studies at Stanford University. "It's not even logical," said Leadbetter. "I'm scared for her future."

It is not as if the present is that rosy. Two weeks ago she celebrated her 18th birthday with a second-last placed finish in the Samsung World Championship and admitted that she has still to get over a wrist injury at the start of the campaign. She agreed it would have made sense to have hung up her spikes for 2007.

The recent resignation of her second agent in less than a year hinted at the unease within her entourage and her backers are known to be tetchy about their investment. Meanwhile, on the men's tour, the 16-year-old Tadd Fujikawa, a fellow Hawaiian who is just 5ft 1in, is still waiting to make his first cut having turned pro in July, and although tournament sponsors continue to dish out invitations to these prodigies there is a growing feeling within the sport that these novelty entries should be curtailed. The LPGA Tour's rules state that its members must be 18 or over, although it allows "under-aged" golfers to compete in a maximum of eight events. With golf in America enjoying an explosion of interest in young females the chances of the authorities firming up their restrictions seems remote to inconceivable.

None of which interested Ariya one bit as she recovered from playing the front half in four-over to come back in a gallant one-under. She and her sister have definitely caused a stir as they have joked and laughed their way down the fairways of the Siam Country Club. When Morgan Pressel was told about the age of her fellow competitor, she replied, "Wow! I'm getting old." Pressel is 19.

Not everyone can be Tiger Woods: Contrasting fortunes of teen starlets

TIGER WOODS



After appearing on TV with Bob Hope at the age of three, he turned pro at just 20. Became youngest Masters winner in 1997, at 21, and has won an additional 12 majors. Is the world's highest-paid athlete, earning $100m in 2006.

JUSTIN ROSE

Finished 4th at 1998 Open aged 17. Struggled initially as a pro but tied 5th at 2007.

MICHELLE WIE

Reached first LPGA event aged 13 and competed against men at the Hawaii Open, but has faded badly.

RORY McILROY

Turned pro last month, aged 18, after amateur career that included 68 at the Open.

MORGAN PRESSEL

The youngest-ever winner of an LPGA major, aged just 18, when she won the Kraft Nabisco in January 2007.

TY TRYON

The former child prodigy turned pro in 2001, aged 16, but has achieved little since

TADD FUJIKAWA

Won affections of American public by overcoming 5ft 1in stature to reach the 2006 US Open aged 15.

Comments