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"And A Little Child Shall Lead Them..."

By John M. Ross,
Morgan Pressel
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Morgan Pressel (.)

If you don't think the golfers of the younger generations are gaining ground on us, you're not paying attention. Aside from all the remarkable things Tiger Woods has done for Young America in recent years, now along comes a 12-year-old girl who qualifies for the U.S. Women's Open!

Yes, 12 years old, and she turned in the leading score in the field of 107 young ladies trying to qualify for the national championship. And, mind you, these are not merely the nine-holders of the local clubs, but LPGA touring pros, and the leading college and amateur golfers of the area trying to win one of the five allotted places in the big event.

Tallying up her card that showed a nifty 2-under-par 70 for the Bear Lakes course in Palm Beach, Florida, Morgan Pressel was as calm as a Nancy Lopez or Annika Sorenstam as the media crowded her for an explanation.

"I wanted to simply play well and have some fun and get some experience," she said with a girlish smile. And then she checked her watch, pleading that she had to get home and do her homework. The seventh-grader had to be at her desk at Omni Middle School in Boca Raton the next day, followed by a session with the orthodontist in the afternoon.

But the biggest date in her mind, of course, is the week of May 31-June 3, when the championship is played at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C. That happens to be the same week as Morgan's final exams at school. And she acknowledges that she'll have to solve that problem before she heads off to Pine Needles.

The course at Bear Lakes sprawls over 6,300 yards, but Morgan said it did not intimidate her. She regularly drives in the 225-235 range, and she stunned the Bear Lakes gallery when one of her tee-shots soared 250 yards-plus. But it was her composure under pressure that impressed onlookers, many finding it hard to believe she is only 12.

The Pressel family thought she was going to be a tennis player like her uncle, Aaron Krickstein, who played in pro tennis events at age 16. Morgan seldom put down her racket as a tot, but when she was 8, she switched to golf, and it's been gung-ho golf ever since. But she also plays basketball, fishes, plays in her school band, and cracks the books. She is a National Honor Society member, too.

It might be hard to believe, but Morgan is not the youngest player to qualify for the Women's Open. In 1970, Beverly Klass, 10 years old, made the starting field. At the time they did not play qualifying rounds, since the field was only one-tenth of what it is today. Klass went on to play the LPGA Tour, and is a teaching pro today in West Palm Beach.

It is widely known that Tiger Woods got his first big exposure to golf at age five, when he appeared as a guest on a TV show. And he showed off a rather incredible swing at the time. But it wasn't until he was 15 that he attracted attention as a player, winning the U.S. Junior championship in 1991, the youngest in history.

That sounded the bugle for America's young golfers, and Tiger led the way. He won the Junior for the next two years, becoming the first to string three in a row. And then he went on to establish similar records in the U.S. Amateur championship. His first, in 1994, made him the youngest amateur champion ever, and when he repeated in 1995 and 1996, he was the first to register three in a row in that class. In addition, he was also the first to win 18 consecutive match-play victories.

Of course, he added some frills to his run of national championships last year, when he made a shambles of the fabled Pebble Beach layout in his 2000 U.S. Open runaway. And at the ripe old age of 25, he continues to dominate the PGA Tour and, indeed, the world of golf.

Next time you're in the area of the driving range, pause for a moment and watch those young players. With rare exception, they're swinging from the hindquarters and making the ball look like a tiny aspirin in space. They all want to "look like Tiger."Ah, the hopes and dreams of youth! And the strong backs!

The PGA Senior Tour bosses deserve a toast for trying to inject a bit of variety into the weekly grind. The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Match Player Championship, a format that hasn't been tried since 1986 on the over-50 tour, got an immediate stamp of approval from the Missouri gallery. Undoubtedly, some of this stemmed from the decision by the officials to let down the ropes for the final round, the way they did in the old days.

Two rounds of stroke play reduced the field to 16, who then filled the drawer for match play. Four of the biggest stars in the lineup, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Dave Stockton and Bob Charles, deadlocked at 8-under for the top spot in the qualifier, but typical of the hazards of match play, none of them made it to the final. Leonard Thompson and Vincente Fernandez, not exactly marquee names on the Senior Tour, wound up in the choice spots, with Thompson taking the $176,000 check, 2-up. Of course, that is exactly what keeps the unpredictable match play events off tour schedules. The promoters and TV sponsors are terrified by the risk of losing the big-name players early and winding up with a couple of "who's he?" players in the Sunday final. Result: poor ticket sales, low TV ratings. Next year, back to stroke play.

But the fans like the break in the sameness of the structure of the tours. With all those millions being poured into the program, one would think the PGA Tour could take a little less every now and then just to do something for the fans.

They're already beating the drums for the upcoming U.S. Open at Southern Hills (June 14-17), but there are more than a few players who are less than overjoyed at the prospect of taking on this severe test in the blistering summer heat of Oklahoma. The last time the Open was played there, in 1977, the thermometer was well over 100 degrees, and I remember the scenes at the various first aid tents where victims of heat prostration sought help. And they were only spectators.

After that experience, some USGA officials took a quiet oath that the Open would not return to a "hot" state for the big test. And it hasn't for the last 23 years. "The Open was never intended to be an endurance test," someone declared.

With Tulsa, Oklahoma being the next stop, the obvious question is: "What happened, USGA?"

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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