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HSBC Women’s Champions 2017

Young guns versus old hands: Ko & Co. came of age before their time

An exciting crop of youngsters is starting to dominate the women's golf scene, but the veterans are hardly letting them have it easy

The millennial generation certainly made their mark last year on the LPGA Tour.

The average age of the 18 different winners in 2016 was an incredible 22.3, the lowest since the Tour began in 1950. Of the 33 tournaments played, 16 were won by players aged 21 or younger.

Appropriately, the youth brigade is led by world No. 1 Lydia Ko and second-ranked Ariya Jutanugarn, who are 19 and 21 respectively and won nine events between them last season.

This is the 90th week that New Zealand's Ko has spent atop the world rankings, with seven of the top 10 players under the age of 25.

Ko, with 14 LPGA titles including two Majors, remains this era's wunderkind. After all, she is the Tour's youngest winner after claiming the 2012 Canadian Women's Open at 15 years and four months, as well as its youngest Major champion, following her triumph at the 2015 Evian Championship.

She told The Sunday Times earlier this week: "It's really cool to see a bunch of girls out there around my age. We all get along really well but I think we also push one another to play better. Everyone's out there trying to win, so you have to keep up."

Before Ko's emergence, Lexi Thompson was the "can't-miss" kid of women's golf, capturing the 2011 Navistar LPGA Classic five months shy of her 17th birthday.

The conventional wisdom of yesteryear that players needed experience as professionals before they were ready to win has been blown out of the water, said the American world No. 5, who has seven Tour wins.

"Growing up, I played in plenty of older age divisions and won a few tournaments. That experience really helped me under pressure to pull out wins when I needed to later on the LPGA," she added.

Even the Majors, where the pressure can be the most suffocating, have been dominated by youngsters in recent years. Of the seven golfers who have won a Major as a teenager, four (Ko, Thompson at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship, Brooke Henderson at the 2016 Women's PGA Championship and Kim Hyo Joo at the 2014 Evian Championship), have done so in the past three seasons.

Experience can be overrated, said Michelle Wie, a one-time child prodigy who in 2004 became the youngest female golfer to play a PGA Tour event at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

The 2014 US Women's Open winner, who has sometimes struggled to match the hype surrounding her career, said many of her younger peers did not have to deal with the scars of failure.

"Sometimes not having experience helps," said the 27-year-old who played her first LPGA event in 2002. "They don't have any bad memories, or any bad experiences. They go out there, they're confident and have no scar tissue."

A similar state of affairs is occurring on the PGA Tour, with a new wave of talent comprising Jordan Spieth, 22, Justin Thomas, 23, and Hideki Matsuyama, 25, joining the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler (all under 30).

Part of this can be explained by technological advances in equipment and analytics, noted former world No. 1s Adam Scott and Ernie Els at January's Singapore Open.

Highlighting TrackMan, a ball-flight and swing analyser software used by hundreds of pro golfers, Els said then: "There's so much information out there now... TrackMan gives you spin rate, club speed on the ball, what angle your club attacks the ball, everything.

"It's actual proof and through that you can manage your game much better, play to your strengths during a tournament and also work on your weaknesses."

Aside from the information age, Hall of Famer and seven-time Major winner Karrie Webb suggested the current crop were facing easier golf courses.

The 42-year-old, who turned pro in 1994, said: "They don't set the courses up hard enough and it doesn't separate the field enough. That's why you see lots of different winners because anyone can win... Back then we had more of a variety of golf courses which were more challenging."

Whatever the reasons, the young guns have no intention of slowing down.

Fittingly, the LPGA's current ad campaign features a series of videos showcasing the recent feats of Ko, Ariya and Henderson, and ends with a tagline that states they "refuse to let age slow them down".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Young guns versus old hands: Ko & Co. came of age before their time '. Print Edition | Subscribe