Akshay Bhatia, the 17-year-old American prodigy from Wake Forest in North Carolina, is making his professional debut at this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship. Bhatia’s amateur degree is not in doubt, becoming the first golfer still in high school to compete for the United States in Walker Cup history just two weeks ago. However, while Bhatia submitted promising starts at the Valspar Championship and the Korn Ferry Tour’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship last season, the track record of teenagers turning pro is decidedly mixed.
For the sake of our exercise, we focused on those who skipped college, leaving out the phenoms like Eddie Pearce, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth.
From the highs of Seve and Rory to a handful of flameouts, here is how 10 notable prodigies fared when making the leap.
The South African won the 1966 British Amateur at 18, the youngest winner in the event’s history for nearly 33 years, and became the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters the next year (another record that held for 33 years). When he won the tour’s Q-School in 1967 at 19, Cole was heralded as the heir to Gary Player. But while Cole made 390 starts in his tour career and finished a stroke out of a playoff at the 1975 Open, he won just once in the United States.
The Spaniard turned pro at 16 in 1974; within two years, he won his first European Tour event by eight shots and led the tour’s Order of Merit. Ballesteros also finished runner-up at The Open that July, ultimately winning his first of five Majors at the 1979 Open at age 22. The next year, Seve became the youngest winner of the Masters (a mark surpassed by Tiger Woods in 1997), claiming the green jacket just four days after his 23rd birthday. He made eight Ryder Cup appearances and led Europe to a win as captain in 1997. His 50 wins are the most in European Tour history, and he is regarded as the best Continental European golfer of all-time.
The Englishman finished T-4 at the 1998 Open Championship as a 17-year-old, but famously struggled when turning pro the week after, missing the cut in his first 21 starts. Though he earned his Euro card in 1999 through the tour’s Q-School, he would have to revisit it the next year. Despite the rocky start, Rose has since transformed into one of his era’s best players with 24 worldwide wins, including the 2013 US Open. He also won the gold medal in golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016, and reached No.1 in the world for the first time in his career earlier this year.
He made the cut at the 2001 Honda Classic at 16; later that season, Tryon became the youngest player (17) to earn a tour card through Q-School. That, coupled with an enormous sponsorship deal with Callaway, amplified the Tryon hype to deafening levels. A battle with mononucleosis derailed his rookie season, and he made just four cuts in 21 starts playing on a medical exemption the next season. He qualified for the 2010 and 2011 US Opens, but hasn’t made a regular PGA Tour start since 2003.
Ishikawa won a Japan Golf Tour event at 15, and by 17 – after four more Japan victories – was the youngest golfer ever to reach the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings. Although he played in three Majors in 2009, he was introduced to the world in 2010 when he was T-2 after 36 holes at the US Open. Ishikawa would finish T-33 that weekend at Pebble Beach, and though he would make 145 starts on tour, he never found sustained success in America. However, he has enjoyed a career rejuvenation in Japan the past two months, with two wins and two additional top-six finishes, vaulting him to 109th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
O’Hair turned professional after his junior year of high school in 1999. He was unsuccessful in his first five tries at Q-School, and laboured on multiple minor-league circuits. He was also tormented by a strained relationship with his father, inflicted with reports of physical and emotional abuse. Estranged from his family, O’Hair broke through at Q-School in 2004, and won the 2005 John Deere Classic en route to earning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. O’Hair has four wins on tour and $US24 million in career earnings.
Like O’Hair, Na bypassed his senior year of high school for professional aspirations. Rather than working his way through the US developmental tours, Na took an international journey, playing on the Asian and European tours to secure PGA Tour status. Na has enjoyed a solid career with $US30 million in earnings in almost 400 starts, boasting three wins – two coming in the past 15 months.
After a win at the 2006 Utah State Amateur Championship in 2006, Finau eschewed college basketball offers to turn pro at 17. For nearly a decade Finau bounced around systems like the Mackenzie Tour, Gateway Tour, NGA Hooters Tour and National Pro Tour before earning his tour card through the then-Web.com Tour in 2014. Finau has made more than $US16 million since joining the tour, highlighted by six top 10s at Majors and a Ryder Cup appearance in 2018.
The Ulsterman made his European Tour debut at 16 years old, and made the cut as an amateur at the 2007 Dubai Desert Classic and Open Championship. He turned pro later that year, and accumulated enough money to earn a card for the next season, becoming the youngest player to do so in European Tour history. He won the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic at 19 and hasn’t slowed down since with 26 worldwide wins, highlighted by four Majors and winning both the PGA Tour and European Tour Player of the Year awards three times.
Those Cole records listed above? Manassero was the man who broke them, winning the 2009 British Amateur at 16, finishing T-13 at that year’s Open Championship and making the weekend at the 2010 Masters a month shy of his 17th birthday. Manassero would turn pro a month after Augusta, winning the European Tour’s Castelló Masters Costa Azahar that autumn to capture Rookie of the Year honours. He has won three more European events since his inaugural victory, reaching as high as 25th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But he has missed the cut in nine of 15 Majors starts as a pro, and though he’s only 26 years old, his career is in desperate need of resuscitation, making just two cuts in 2019 and falling to 1,123rd in the world.