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Alexis Thompson, 15, leads a charge of youngsters thrust into prime time.


Alexis Thompson is 15, young enough that some of the teenagers eagerly seeking her autograph at the U.S. Women's Open this week are a few years older than she is.

Thompson enjoyed considerable success as an amateur, yet she's three years short of the age that even the most skilled golfers traditionally reach before deciding whether to turn pro. Making this week more difficult for her, Thompson's second tournament as a pro is the women's national championship, a USGA-run event that's so demanding it can make the most mature of pros weigh retirement.

Which raises this question: How young is too young?

Former child prodigy Michelle Wie still hasn't established herself among the sport's elite at age 20, yet she's not close to being the youngest in a field of 156 that includes 23 teenagers. Thompson isn't the youngest, either; 14-year-old amateurs Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand and Gabriella Then of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., are playing.

Asked who accompanied her to Oakmont, Thompson rattled off alist any teen might offer before a prime athletic event: her parents, a grandmother, an uncle. But her agents are here, too.

"If I can just go out and just relax and play my own game, I think I'll play really well out there," said Thompson, from Coral Springs. "Just keep a consistent four-day score and just play really well. I think I can compete out there."

To world No.1 Cristie Kerr, coming off a 12-stroke victory in the LPGA Championship, it's a bit disconcerting to see so many youngsters crowding onto the course.

"I played with a girl that was 14 in the practice round," Kerr said. "They don't carry themselves like kids anymore. People that are that young, it's kind of a business to them. They want to do it to make money and have a career."

Thompson, the youngest to turn pro to date, first qualified for the U.S. Open at age 12 in 2007 before winning the U.S. junior girls title a year later.

Still, several of the most experienced pros are wondering if it's the best decision to send 10th-graders into such an intense, competitive environment.

Wie's still-developing career might have stalled when her parents allowed her to accept exemptions into PGA Tour events. To some of her fellow golfers, she would have been better served playing in LPGA tournaments or high-profile amateur events.

"I wanted to be in school. I wanted to play junior tournaments," said Paula Creamer, 23, an eight-time LPGA Tour winner. "I liked traveling and playing at the AJGA (juniors) and playing the Curtis Cup, junior Solheim Cup, those kind of things. I liked that. That's what was best for me. That's always been the path that I've gone."

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U.S. Women's Open

When/where: Today-Sunday, Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

TV: Today-Friday, 3-7 p.m., ESPN2; Saturday-Sunday, 3-6 p.m., Ch.8