Ko trails by 1 at New Zealand Women's Open

Lydia Ko of New Zealand leads after the first round of stroke play at the 2012 U. S. Women's Amateur Championship at The Country Club. She posted a 66.

Lydia Ko of New Zealand leads after the first round of stroke play at the 2012 U. S. Women's Amateur Championship at The Country Club. She posted a 66.

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – Mike Henderson walked off the 18th green at Clearwater Golf Club and received a hearty congrats. He’d just looped for Lydia Ko in Round 1 of the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open, where Kiwi pride opened with a 2-under 70 to trail by one on a windswept Friday morning.

“It’s an easy job,” Henderson said. “Just don’t drop the dog or stand on the ball.”

Henderson, a friend of a friend who is looping for Ko this week only, was referring to Ko’s shaggy-dog headcover. When Ko won the LPGA’s CN Canadian Women’s Open last summer as a 15-year-old amateur, she told reporters that had she gotten the six-figure check that went along with the trophy, she would’ve gotten a puppy.

Alas, Ko took only a small replica trophy back with her to Auckland. She won’t get much more should she win in Christchurch, though her stock will rise considerably higher. Despite being the marquee name at Clearwater – and arguably the player to beat – Ko prefers to keep her head down when working alongside those twice her age.

“I’m just an amateur playing in a pro event,” she said. “I just try to keep out of their way and just play my game.”

Ko is hardly just anything. She’s just No. 38 in the Rolex Rankings after only 11 events. She’s just the youngest player to ever win an LPGA event. She’s just the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and the No. 1 amateur in the world.

Ko recently said that she’s not a robot, but the mechanical way she takes apart a golf course with uncanny precision causes one to take pause when considering that statement.

She looks innocent enough, in her dark-rimmed glasses and blue-and-white-checked shirt. The two tees sticking out of her ponytail are staple accessories, as are the heaps of bracelets on her right wrist. She carries around enough food in her golf bag to satiate the gallery.

Her biggest concern: holing putts. As Ko’s longtime coach Guy Wilson notes, when a player hits as many approach shots within 10 feet as this unassuming 15-year-old, it’s easy for Ko to think she's putting poorly. Every round, it seems, looks like it could be a 66.

On Friday, Ko opened with a bogey after missing an 8-foot putt, but bounced back quickly with birdie on the second. She would go on to miss an eagle putt from 10 feet, plus three birdie putts from 10 feet or less. The 18-incher for par that lipped out violently on the 12th was particularly tough to swallow.

But, the conditions were tough, and when Ko walked off the 18th after missing one more 10-foot birdie putt, she was only one shot back. Her playing partners, Angela Stanford (at No. 19, the highest-ranked player in the field) and Carlota Ciganda (Europe’s No. 1), shot 78 and 74, respectively.

“I definitely could have played better, I think,” Ko said. “But the scores aren’t that crazy low today.”

The slogan for this week’s event is “Ready, set, Ko.” (Ko finished T-7 at this event as a 12-year-old.) The tournament theme is plastered all over Christchurch. Lydia’s mother, Tina, noted that back in the family's native South Korea, Ko’s name is actually pronounced “Goh.” It’s unknown if the event’s marketers were clever enough to know that tip.

As for Ko, the attention is a bit of a double-edged sword. The signs, she noted, are “like all in public and everything.”

“It’s pretty cool, but at sometimes kinda embarrassing,” Ko said.

She is, after all, just a kid.

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