Bella Simões warms up on the driving range during The 2022 Drive, Chip and Putt Championship Regional Qualifier at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida.
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When 19-year-old South Korean prodigy Inbee Park lifted the first of her seven major championships at the 2008 US Women’s Open, she became the tournament’s youngest ever champion.
Bella Simões would not be born for around another six years. On Tuesday, she attempted to qualify for the major.
At nine years old, the Brazilian is the youngest player ever to attempt qualification to the tournament, set to tee off at California’s acclaimed Pebble Beach course for the first time in its 78-year history in July.
Simões hit the very first shot of her qualifying group at The Club at Mediterra in Naples, Florida. An impeccable swing technique – posted to the USGA’s Twitter account – drew plenty of plaudits.
Qualifying for the 2023 #USWomensOpen has officially begun!
Nine-year-old Bella Simoes hit the first shot.
Follow along @FSGA ➡️ https://t.co/622czXdhXk pic.twitter.com/4aYolLLL21
— U.S. Women's Open (USGA) (@uswomensopen) May 9, 2023
Yet that should come as no surprise given Simões’ already-impressive résumé. A US Kids Golf World champion for the under-seven’s category in 2020, she defended her title a year later before clinching another victory in the eight-year-olds competition in 2022.
It’s a youth tournament with pedigree: World No. 7 and 2014 Chevron Championship winner Lexi Thompson was twice a champion before she became one of the game’s elite players.
Thompson became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for the US Women’s Open when she – at 12 years old – made it to the 2007 edition of the major.
As we take a look at some of the most talented prodigies in the history of golf, where better to start than Tiger Woods: Six junior world championships to his name, the only player to win three US junior championships in a row, and a three-peat winner of the US amateur from 1994 to 1996. Woods turned pro in August 1996. Within a year, he’d scooped three PGA Tour events, become the youngest winner of The Masters at 21, and become the fastest player to reach No. 1 after turning professional, just 290 days into his pro career. Pictured, Woods at the 1996 US Amateur Championships.
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Following a series of wins in Canadian amateur events, Brooke Henderson became the youngest-ever winner of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship (at the Sahalee Country Club, pictured) when she won her first major aged 18 in 2016. Henderson has since racked up eight wins on the LPGA Tour, her most recent coming at the LA Open in April 2021.
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After becoming the youngest player to win the British Amateur Championship in 2009 (at Formby Golf Club, pictured) and make the cut at The Masters as a 16-year-old the following year, Italy’s Matteo Manassero burst onto the pro scene, becoming the first teenager to win three times on the European Tour. Victories at the Castello Masters, Malaysian Open, and the BMW PGA Championship suggested the arrival of a new superstar, but Manassero has since endured a difficult spell. He hasn’t won on the European Tour since 2013, though 7th and 8th Tour finishes already in 2022 have made for a solid start to the year for the Italian.
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The youngest-ever known winner of a professional golf tour event, 14-year-old Atthaya Thitikul made headlines around the world when she triumphed at the Ladies European Thailand Championship in 2017. A string of amateur titles followed before Thitikul turned pro in 2020, and the Thai prodigy’s meteoric rise continued with three more Ladies European Tour wins by September 2021. She won her first LPGA Tour event in March 2022 at the JTBC Classic in Southern California (pictured), and in May, rose to No. 4 in the world rankings.
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Continuing Thailand’s recent trend of golf prodigies, Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat narrowly missed out on besting compatriot Thitikul’s record when he became the youngest male player to win on a major Tour aged 15 years and 37 days. Victory at the Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup in April 2022 (pictured) set a new peak in the schoolboy’s amateur career, having already become the youngest player to make the cut in the history of the All Thailand Golf Tour in 2020, aged 13 years and four months.
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Having already won on the ALPG Tour earlier that year, New Zealand’s Lydia Ko became the youngest golfer to win on the LPGA Tour when — at 15 years old — she triumphed at the CN Canadian Women’s Open in August 2012 (pictured). After turning pro in October 2013, Ko has gone from strength to strength with an already-glittering trophy cabinet. At 17 years old, she was the youngest golfer to reach the No. 1 ranking in 2015, and today boasts 17 victories on the LPGA Tour.
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Arguably the greatest golfer never to go pro, Bobby Jones is one of the sport’s most influential figures. A prodigious young talent with a string of wins by the age of 14, it took longer than expected for Jones to win his first major, triumphing at the US Open in 1923, aged 21. He soon added three more and three British Open titles before retiring at just 28. He proceeded to found and help design the course at Augusta National Golf Club, where The Masters — then known as the Augusta National Invitational — was first hosted in 1934.
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One of the most famed golf prodigies in recent history, a 10-year-old Michelle Wie became the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur Championship in 2000. Aged 14 in 2004, she bested many of the world’s top men’s players’ and major winners at the Sony Open (pictured) despite narrowly missing the cut. With a professional career marred by injury, victory at the US Women’s Open in 2014 has proven to be the career peak for Wie, who told CNN she had been considering retirement before the birth of her daughter in 2020.
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Golf's greatest-ever prodigies
Simões still has a few attempts left to usurp that title but will have to wait at least another year after finishing tied-59th in the 67-player field. The Brazilian shot 23-over par, as two players – Lindy Duncan and Brooke Matthews – secured automatic qualification with scores of 10-under and 8-under respectively.
The USGA announced a record number of entries for July’s championship, with 2,107 applicants from 47 US states and 62 countries dwarfing the previous record of 1,874 set last year, when Minjee Lee went on to clinch victory at Pine Needles.
THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS – APRIL 23: Lilia Vu of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning in a one-hole playoff during the final round of The Chevron Championship at The Club at Carlton Woods on April 23, 2023 in The Woodlands, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
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Players must have a handicap index of 2.4 or below, or be a professional, to attempt qualification. Several groups are exempt and receive an automatic invitation, including the last 10 champions and the top 75 players in the world rankings.
Kimberly Williams, a 60-year-old pro from Bethesda, Maryland, was the oldest player to attempt qualification this year, according to the USGA.