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Teens parry but fall to Open veterans

Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer stood together just off the 18th green at The Orchards on Sunday, watching Meg Mallon par out and celebrate her second U.S. Women's Open victory.

Afterward, Mallon was asked what she knew now that she didn't know when she first won the Open in 1991.

"Thirteen years ago, I was 28 -- and I was old then," Mallon said, perhaps acknowledging her young competition.

Mallon, after all, is old enough to be a mother to both Wie, 14, and Creamer, 17.

The teenage brigade -- there were 16 of them in the field -- got a lot of attention this week. Brittany Lincicome, 18, shot a first-round 66 and was the story of a rain-delayed opening day. Two weeks ago, Creamer came close to becoming the first amateur to win an LPGA event since JoAnne Carner in 1969. On Sunday, both Creamer and Wie finished with scores of 1-over 285 and tied with French veteran Patricia Meunier-Lebouc for 13th place.

Though players can't join the LPGA Tour until age 18 unless they petition in, it's hard to imagine Wie will wait that long. In the previous major she played in this year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in March, Wie placed fourth. She's got things to work on, of course, but her major finishes so far tell a great deal.

Wie said as much Sunday when talking about her play: "I wasn't thinking about low-amateur, I was thinking about the trophy. And it was kind of impossible after a while."

But the sky's the limit for Wie, Creamer, Lincicome and the other teens at this major. At the same time, there's almost nothing in sports harder to predict than someone's future in golf.

Veteran experience, on the other hand, swept the top three places at the Open: Mallon, at 41, is the third-oldest player to win the Open. Annika Sorenstam is now 33, and Kelly Robbins, 34.

"They still want to kick these little girls' fannies," Mallon's caddie, John Killeen said with a grin. "These teenagers still have to prove themselves."

Robbins, a runner-up in the Open last year, was paired with Creamer on Saturday and was very impressed. Robbins joked afterward that it was just as well she was nearer the end of her career than the beginning.

"There are kids out here that are fearless," Robbins said. "They're good, they hit it long and they putt well. They just do what they need to do.

"I'm kind of glad I'm phasing out of things in the next four or five years, I think. I won't be able to keep up with anybody."

Mallon and Sorenstam weighed in with compliments this week about the kids, too. For Sorenstam, though, this tournament was another
disappointment. She was runner-up to Juli Inkster two years ago in the Open when Inkster went putting-crazy the way Mallon did Sunday. Last year, Sorenstam's dreadful look-out-for-the-port-o-john shot on the 72nd hole kept her from a birdie chance that would have won the title and didn't even give her much hope on a par putt that would put her in the playoff. Sorenstam had to swallow a bogey and fourth place.

This year, she shot a very good 4-under 67 on Sunday -- and on any other Sunday, she might have taken the title. Who on earth thought Mallon would toss up a 65?

"I got outplayed," Sorenstam said. "It's not a fun feeling. But that's what makes you work harder and remember the good times when you do win."

Sunday the good times fell once again, for the second time in 13 years, to Mallon.

Wie and Creamer watched the veteran's final par putt, her family rushing to hug her, and surely these young women thought, "That could be me soon."

But there are other things they should take away from seeing players such as Mallon, Sorenstam and Robbins. Sure, the kids hope to hit their drives as straight as Sorenstam, to have the laser precision with their irons that Robbins has at her best, and to putt the way Mallon did on Sunday.

But what they should most want to emulate is the veterans' professionalism. All handle themselves so well, no matter how things are going on the course.

And from Mallon in particular, they can learn how to maximize their relationships with the fans and media. In an LPGA popularity contest among the press, Mallon would win in a landslide. She's funny, articulate, intelligent and warm. She's that way all the time. Even when she was runner-up twice in the Open and devastated by falling short.

With the fans Sunday, Mallon soaked up the positive energy. The spectators gave her the sort of admiration usually reserved for the likes of Nancy Lopez, and she used every bit of it for her game. But again, those in the gallery have seen Mallon stay the same friendly person through the ups and downs of her 18-year career.

"Every hole, they were so supportive of me," she said, "and kept pushing me on."

The teenage phenoms can only hope to be in Mallon's shoes when they're 41.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.