John F. Russell: How young is too young? |

John F. Russell: How young is too young?

— Eleven-year-old girls should be playing with dolls, hugging the stuffed animals that are lined up on their beds and watching cartoons on television Saturday morning.

The should have play dates during the weekend, spend hours learning to do their hair with friends, quietly whisper secrets to one another and giggle about it when Dad walks into the room.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the accomplishments of 11-year-old Lucy Li, but I ‘m not so sure she should have played golf last week in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Don’t take this the wrong way — I totally agree, it’s cool that she could hold her own at the U.S. Women’s Open before missing the cut Friday, but I’m not sure it’s worth the cost. Would it be the end of the world if she waited a few years to tee off in her first major at, say, age 13 or 14?

The other day, as I watched her walk up the fairway dressed from head to toe in a red, white and blue outfit torn out of the pages of a Justice catalog, I didn’t think, “Wow, this is amazing.” It just made me wonder, how young is too young?

Li is the youngest player to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, and from her showing, my guess is that she will come back. There is no question that her future in the game of golf is more than bright, it’s sensational.

But in a society where children grow up at the speed of light, I can’t help but wonder what kind of impact this will have on her childhood. Being a professional golfer is a full-time job, and do we really want 11-year-olds working 40 hours each week, traveling around the world or missing all the things that make childhood great?

Call me old fashioned, but I think childhood is something that needs to be protected, something that needs to be treasured. Today’s athletes are created with children who show early promise pushed to reach their potential as soon as possible. What kind of message does Li send to parents who hope their child will be the next Tiger Woods, the next Michelle Wie?

Both of those golfers got their start at a young age, but both of them started years after Li’s debut. I’m sure there are a lot of people, a lot of parents who disagree with me. If you child has talent, why not push them to that next level? Why not make sure they face the best competition at the youngest age? Why shouldn’t they be pushed to reach the highest levels?

It’s a valid argument when you look at the success of players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball and a long list of golfers who started before they could drive a car. Those who became stars were rewarded with huge contracts and enough money that they never will have to worry about a 401K or Social Security. But for every player who succeeds, there is a Freddy Adu somewhere out there. Adu was a child who was promised the world but now, at the ripe age of 24, is a has-been.

So why is it that in sports, when a young person displays a natural ability to play a game, we immediately push them to the top without thinking twice about what we are asking them to give up, including their childhood? Even more important, though, is the message to the parents of children who have yet to pick up a golf club, dribble a basketball or swing a tennis racket.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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