A phone conversation doesn’t do justice to Lydia Ko’s personality. Ko is your atypical witty, dry, thoughtful and driven adolescent, but at 5 p.m. on a Saturday in New Zealand (yes, that’s 3 a.m. Saturday EST), Ko’s thick Kiwi accent comes across the line as all business.
For all intents and purposes, the 14-year-old Ko has just stepped out of “the office.” After shooting a third-round 69 at the Australian Ladies Masters in Queensland, she laughs a little at the suggestion that a flawless final round could bump her into contention. She trailed leader So Yeon Ryu by 12 after Round 3, and eventually finished in a tie for 32nd, the low amateur.
Ko entered the event a week after winning her first professional title at the New South Wales Open. It made her the youngest winner of a professional golf tournament in history. Ko, the top-ranked amateur in the world, dethroned Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa for that distinction.
“I don’t even know if it has sunk in or not,” Ko said. “It was a great feeling, just coming off the 18th and knowing that I won was just awesome.”
New South Wales hardware is especially meaningful to Ko after she three-putted the last green at the 2011 tournament to finish one shot behind Caroline Hedwall. This year, Ko took a four-shot lead into the final round and kept it.
“I was pretty nervous because I was playing with Lindsey Wright and she was catching up really quickly; she was making some good birdies on the front nine,” Ko said. “I just had to take deep breaths and just stay positive.”
Part of Ko’s underreaction to the victory might be attributed to a tight schedule. With the Ladies Masters only a few days away, there was no time for celebration, and in Ko’s mind, she’ll have to continue to play well to deserve a victor’s homecoming party when she returns to Auckland, New Zealand, in three weeks. Until then, she will play the Australian Open, the New Zealand Open (both sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour) and the Australian Foresomes & Riversdale Cup, another amateur event. It amounts to two months on the road, but then again, it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Despite the busy schedule, rest assured that Ko still utters those most important words without hesitation, “I’m still having fun. Definitely.”
For proof, know that Ko’s New South Wales victory merited a fully-clothed jump into a lake by Guy Wilson, her swing coach and caddie. It was a promise that he made to Ko at the beginning of the season to keep things light, and one which he has carried out twice so far in 2012: one for the pro win, and one the week before when Ko won her first Australian Ladies Amateur. Wilson, 31, dutifully taped each one so his player would believe he went through with it.
“We’re always laughing out there and doing stupid stuff,” Wilson said. “It just keeps her out of the mindframe of, ‘Hey, this is a big event, a big job for me.’ ”
Wilson was at Ko’s side last summer when the two made a three-week jaunt across the U.S. that included connecting with a golf buddy of Wilson’s to play Cypress Point in Pebble Beach, Calif., and ended at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Barrington, R.I., where Ko earned the medalist honor. Both kept a small media room in stitches as they joked about their thick accents and their on-course shenanigans together. When it came time to talk about golf, Ko uttered words that made perfect sense: “In professional events, my goal is to basically learn stuff from the pros. I’m not going to earn money. I’m just trying to play my best in my game. I can learn stuff and practice it after the tournament.”
Wilson generally sees Ko’s swing every day to keep track of her progress and tinker when necessary. That relationship began eight years ago when Ko’s mother, Tina, brought her 6-year-old daughter into the pro shop at Pupuke Golf Club in Auckland, where Wilson once worked, and asked for junior lessons.
“I said, ‘OK, sweet. Where is she? Where is the girl?’ ” Wilson remembers. “I couldn’t see her; she was below the counter.”
In the years since, Wilson, now the director of instruction at the New Zealand-based Institute of Golf, has had to pick and choose which events he can attend. Ko can’t accept prize money or have sponsors if she wants to maintain her amateur status, which means Wilson has to pay his own way to tournaments. He lined up fellow Kiwi Steve Mowbray to carry Ko’s bag in New South Wales.
Wilson sees this as part of his job now — accompanying Ko to the most important events, meeting as many people as he can and finding ways for Ko to travel on a shoestring. The sponsor exemptions, he explains, are easy to get in Australia because of Ko’s status as the top-ranked amateur in the world — Ko has a spot in the U.S. Women’s Open because of that, too — but getting to them is another matter.
“At the moment, there’s no reward for us doing well. We’ve just got to negotiate,” Wilson said. “We have to get as much money as we can in the trust fund so that we can play golf.”
Ko’s other option would be to turn professional. Wilson explained that he met Lexi Thompson’s father, Scott, and agent Bobby Kreusler at the Australian Masters, and both pronounced her ready (Ko was paired with Thompson, a player whom she calls an idol, for the first two rounds). That, however, would mean abandoning her dream of playing collegiate golf for Stanford and, as Wilson says, “putting all her eggs in one basket.” Until the time comes for college, Ko plans to ramp up her studies just to be ready.
That’s one of the many perks of early success. It leaves plenty of time for decision making.