BARRINGTON, R.I. – When Lydia Ko finishes play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she’ll hop on a plane and return to her home halfway across the world in Auckland, New Zealand, ending a monthlong summer golf odyssey in the United States. But that day is not today, and if history means anything, it likely won’t be for a few days to come.
Playing in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, Ko, a precocious 14-year-old, shot 6-under 136 (70-66) at Rhode Island Country Club to share the stroke-play medal with Jihee Kim of South Korea. It’s only the third time Ko has been to the U.S. to play golf (2009 and 2010 Callaway Junior World Championships). She mostly just dominates on her home turf, having won the New Zealand Amateur Stroke Play and Match Play championships this year and falling one shot short of winning the New South Wales Open, an Australian Ladies Tour event. She’s the top-ranked female amateur in the world.
“Out here, it’s my first time here playing the U.S. Am, so I’m just thinking play my best and get experience,” Ko said thoughtfully. “Next year, if I’m able to play this championship again, I can play better.”
By the end of this stay, Ko will have logged about $25,000 in expenses from traveling and playing with coach and caddie Guy Wilson. Ko’s mom Tina also is along for the trip, which began with tournament qualifying in Boston on July 20. The three then went on a whirlwind golf tour of the West Coast that included a round at Cypress Point in Pebble Beach, Calif., courtesy of a golf “mate” of Wilson’s.
Some of those expenses will be picked up by the national federation New Zealand Golf. The rest comes from a trust fund set up by Wilson, to which supporters can donate without Ko’s amateur status being compromised.
Mostly, Wilson just makes sure Ko doesn’t have to think about anything but striking the ball. That, and her career aspirations, which she hopes eventually includes a spot on the Stanford women’s team.
“I want to go to college and keep doing my studies, and my goal is to go to Stanford,” Ko said. “I need to work hard to go there in the years to come.”
Most importantly, golf still is fun for Ko, though she concedes she doesn’t have the same care-free attitude she did as a 6-year-old, when it was strictly hit the ball, chase it and hit it again.
“I’m pretty sure it’s getting more stressful because I’m playing the professional events, and back at home people are wanting more out of me,” she said.
She turns then to Wilson for affirmation.
“Being with Guy is quite good because on the course, I think we have a fun time, do you?” she asks.
Then there’s the pronunciation help of the course where she and Wilson first met more than seven years ago (for those counting at home, that’s more than half Ko’s life): Pupuke Golf Club. You know, like “poo” and “puke” combined. Giggles ensue – louder perhaps from assembled reporters than from Ko.
Ko “couldn’t see over the counter” then, Wilson remembers. Now the two are gallivanting around the country. Wilson is close at hand when Ko answers questions from the media, and Ko, it seems, treats him like a big brother. As she waited in the ninth fairway for the green to clear, she was spotted firing her fairway-wood cover at Wilson’s kneecaps. When she relayed her streak of four consecutive birdies beginning at No. 4 – which ended with a 36-footer at No. 7 – Wilson laughed at her conversions.
“Thirty-six feet – where did you come up with that?” Wilson asked of the birdie putt.
“Twelve meters; I timesed it by three!” Ko said.
Ko was born in South Korea, but moved to Auckland in 2003 at age 6. It was the same year she took up golf, after an aunt gave her a putter and a 7-iron to play with. She soon was hooked.
Ko doesn’t have a strong preference for match or stroke play – she’s accomplished at both. She points out, however, that the gimmes are a welcome benefit of match play.
Kim, meanwhile, never has competed in match play, an uncommon format in her native Korea. After scoring 10 birdies in the past two days, it shouldn’t be a problem for the 17-year-old, who said through a translator that her putter wasn’t as sharp Tuesday as it was in Round 1. She held the overnight lead after an opening 66, but allowed Ko to catch her after a second-round 70.
Moriya Jutanugarn finished close behind in solo third after a second-round, bogey-free 67 moved her to 5-under 139. It’s only the second time Jutanugarn, 17, had seen the course after flight delays and inclement weather ruined her scheduled Sunday practice round.
“I really need the yardage book,” she said. “I always read it.”
Younger sister Ariya, who is coming off consecutive wins at the U.S. Girls’ Junior and Junior PGA Championship, finished in a nine-way tie for ninth at even-par 142.