LPGA receives membership petition from teen prodigy Lydia Ko, defends decision to play in 'hazardous' China smog

Richard Heathcote

New Zealand 16-year-old Lydia Ko petitions the LPGA to waive its age requirement and let her join the women’s tour.

Lydia Ko, who would have banked more than $900,000 in prize money during the 2013 golf season had she not maintained her amateur status, is taking Tiger Woods' ex-caddie's advice and will turn professional.

The 16-year-old, who earned her way into the tour’s season finale in Naples, Fla., with the successful defense of her Canadian Women’s Open title in August, will play her next event, the CME Group Titleholders, as a pro, according to GolfChannel.com’s Randall Mell. Ko may also tee it up in the Lorena Ochoa Invitational a week before the LPGA contest, Mell wrote on Wednesday.

"If she plays any pro events now, she will play as a pro," Ko's mother Tina Hyon told Mell about her daughter, who, for the third straight year, wrapped up honors as the world’s top woman amateur.

Ko, at 15, bounced former teen phenom, Lexi Thompson, from the record books when the Kiwi by way of South Korea became the youngest winner of an LPGA tourney with last year’s Canadian Women’s Open victory. Like Thompson, who was also 16 when she asked and received a waiver of the tour’s age restriction, Ko has petitioned the LPGA to let her join even though she’s not 18, the official minimum age for membership.

"The LPGA has received Lydia Ko’s petition and the Commissioner plans to review it upon his return from Asia," read a statement from the tour. "The decision on the petition will be solely up to the Commissioner’s discretion and upon his review, he will communicate directly with Lydia and her family. The LPGA does not comment publicly on petitions as they are a private matter between the player and the Commissioner."

In addition to winning in Canada this year, Ko, who will be 17 in April, finished runner-up at the tour’s fifth major, the Evian Championship, in solo third in the Australian Women’s Open, and shared 17th place in the LPGA Championship.

Speaking of the LPGA, the organization got a bum rap last week when reports circulated suggesting that officials ignored health warnings by sending golfers out to play in the Reignwood LPGA Classic in smog-ridden Beijing.

Tour reps had no official response to allegations from Bloomberg’s Adam Minter that, "the Ladies Professional Golf Association demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice player safety for its own long-term financial health" by staging the first-ever tour event in China despite cautions from the U.S. State Department that the air was "hazardous."

The LPGA’s chief communications officer, Kraig Kann, took issue with Minter’s conclusions, noting in a phone interview with SBNation that organizers took every precaution to deal with the air pollution and took hits cue from the ATP and WTA, which staged the China Open tennis event outdoors during the same timeframe.

"We had sent an email to all of our players, we had consulted with doctors both there and our LPGA physicians," said Kann. "Obviously there were some warnings. We were assured that the symptoms, if they were occurring, were only temporary and there have been no repercussions, no upper-respiratory issues that have carried from last week to this week."

The tour, which is in Malaysia this week, kept its players advised about hourly air-quality measurements from the U.S. embassy.

"There was never a severe danger based on all the available information that we had," said Kann, who observed that no one had withdrawn from the tennis tourney.

Tennis contestants were certainly aware of the problems, according to a report that quoted world No. 1 Novak Djokovic asking organizers to place oxygen tanks court-side.

"A box of oxygen or something on the bench would be great, but we don't have it. I guess I will have to get used to it," the event’s top seed said last week. "The bad air obviously does irritate you a little bit, especially if you're playing against somebody that you expect to play long rallies with.

"We had so many long rallies and it's hard to recover when you don't have fresh air," said the defending champion who won his fourth China Open crown.

For sure, Kann indicated, air pollution was likely to affect his association’s players less than tennis players, who exert themselves far more than golfers.

"The tennis had been going on for seven days and no one had withdrawn," Kann added. "I’m sure if the [ATP] had cancelled that event, we might have taken other precautions or actions, but we were in touch with them every day."

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