Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Feb. 15 issue of Golfweek, after Lydia Ko’s New Zealand Open victory.
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – As the teppanyaki chef counted to three, Lydia Ko sat poised to catch part of Wednesday night’s dinner in her mouth. At the last second, an embarrassed Ko leaned back and caught the flying egg in her hands. It would be the only time all week she’d back down from a challenge.
Ko, the 15-year-old Kiwi whose golf game is as measured and precise as the chef with two slashing knives, was the guest of Harris Kim, owner of Ace Wasabi and six-time club champion at Clearwater Golf Club, site of the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open. Four days later, Ko returned to this delectable Japanese grill for a victory celebration, where she likely ordered a second round of apple juice.
“It’s always special to make history,” said Ko, after learning she was the first Kiwi to win the New Zealand Women’s Open. Ko collects national open trophies like some kids her age collect junior club championships. She became the youngest player to win on the LPGA when she triumphed at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open, the week after she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Earlier that year, she won a Ladies European Tour event at age 14.
She owns an unprecedented three professional victories by age 15. Ko insists that college is her next step, but longtime instructor Guy Wilson believes the lure of money might keep her from that dream. Wilson expects her to turn professional by age 17.
“Only because 18 is too far away,” Wilson said. “She could be playing the best golf of her life. Why would you wait three years?”
England’s Laura Davies echoed that sentiment in an early-week interview: “Strike while the iron is hot.”
Lydia’s mother, Tina Hyon, said her youngest daughter is considering the option. The fact that neither of Ko’s parents works, and that 2012 was funded largely by David Levene, an elderly businessman whose six-figure donation was funneled through a national program, leads one to conclude that money does indeed figure into this equation – whether young Lydia recognizes it or not.
The Ko camp isn’t yet up to speed on all things LPGA. The plans for this year recently were altered once the family understood the tour’s six-tournament exemption rule for nonmembers. Ko can make only six starts on the LPGA in 2013, plus the U.S. Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open. Odds are their plans for 2014 also will change as they begin to understand the LPGA’s qualifying system.
For Ko to play on the LPGA next year as a 17-year-old, she’d need to petition the tour to compete in LPGA Q-School at 16. (Ko turns 16 on April 24.) Of course, if she were to finish the equivalent of top 40 on the LPGA money list in official tournaments with cuts, Ko could ask commissioner Mike Whan to allow her to skip Q-School based on this result (Category 10 on the LPGA Priority List). She also could win another LPGA event and petition to join the tour, skipping Q-School, much like Lexi Thompson in 2011.
In other words, she has options, and it would be incredible to think that Whan could do anything other than green-light a Ko petition for 2014.
Michelle Wie and Thompson, both 6 feet or taller, overwhelmed us with their power and length as fresh-faced teens. Ko isn’t a short hitter. In fact, she is 20 yards longer and 2 inches taller than she was last summer.
What sets Ko apart from the giants of the game is an unmatched level of consistency. Ko’s drives follow an invisible string that keeps her nearly immune to hazards and gnarly rough. A wild shot for Ko is a pace or two off the fairway.
She attacks greens as if they are pin cushions, taking stabs at one flag after another until it seems impossible for her to miss. Ko considers putting to be the weakest part of her game, which is probably a fair assessment. It’s not that onlookers expect every putt she hits to fall. It’s that she hits so many approach shots so close, that four or five birdie putts are bound to find the bottom of the cup. And just like that, Ko has posted a tidy 68, as she did in the final round in Christchurch.
On the odd occasion when she does flub a chip shot, Ko quickly recovers. She does not allow bad shots to snowball.
“I often say golf is not a game of how many good shots you hit, but how few bad shots you hit,” said Bob Charles, New Zealand’s most celebrated lefty and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I think she’s that type of player.”
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The Ko family immigrated to New Zealand from South Korea in part because of Lydia’s golf game. The climate is warmer and cleaner than Seoul’s, and the move offered a fresh start. They moved across the street from Pupuke Golf Club in Auckland, and when Tina walked Lydia into the pro shop at age 6, Wilson barely could see her on the other side of the counter.
Tina wanted her daughter to have four one-hour lessons per week. Lydia barely spoke a word of English, and Wilson found it difficult to keep a 6-year-old focused for 60 minutes. The lesson wound up covering everything from golf, to math to English. He was only 22 at the time, and one could say they have somewhat grown up together in the past nine years. Wilson even met his girlfriend, a TV reporter, during a Ko interview.
Ko’s humor is a bit “cheeky,” like Wilson’s. She often surprises reporters with her answers as they are more Kiwi than Korean. Wilson spent 18 months petitioning to get young Ko a club membership so that she could practice and have a handicap. Neither of her parents was playing golf at that time.
Her first handicap was a 21 off the women’s tees, and as she developed, Wilson pushed for New Zealand citizenship so that she could take advantage of national funding. Ko became a Kiwi on Dec. 22, 2009, and could start competing overseas.
While New Zealand makes for a lovely home, it’s geographically challenged. It takes a minimum of 12 hours to get anywhere beyond Australia. That’s a big reason why Ko misses so much school.
Officially, Ko is on scholarship at the Pinehurst School, which allows smaller class loads and unlimited absences.
When Ko is in Auckland, she sees Wilson once a day. Her practice schedule often involves three locations over an 11-hour time span. She eats lunch in the car with her father, Gil Hong, who carefully watches each shot when Lydia is in Auckland. Tina takes care of everything on the road. Ko’s spare time is spent on the computer, scrolling her Facebook timeline or watching Korean dramas.
“Outside of golf, she is a lot younger than her age suggests because she hasn’t experienced anything,” Wilson said.
And that’s by her parents’ design.
Ask Ko when she fell in love with the game and she can’t really say. She assumes she must have liked it from the beginning, because it’s all she has known for nine years. She took off Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, Wilson said, only because the courses were closed.
“Because it’s been in my routine so much, it’s quite hard to erase the past and start new,” Ko said.
There are days she gets sick of golf. Tina said Lydia actually prefers school, which might explain why Ko got so excited to receive her U.S. Women’s Amateur championship ring last week. She wore it on her left hand during the tournament because it reminded her of the class rings she coveted in American movies.
“You get sick of (golf), but then you want to go back to it because it’s part of my daily life,” Ko said. “It feels very boring (without it). Like nothingness.”
• • •
On Wednesday at Clearwater Golf Club, Ko put on a junior clinic for the locals from Christchurch. Liz McKinnon of New Zealand Golf asked Ko to shape shots for the kids.
“She hits it straight,” Wilson yelled from the sidelines. Ko only recently began working on hitting shots right to left off the tee in preparation for a few holes in this week’s ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. McKinnon tried to make much of Ko’s baby fade, but the ball barely moved offline.
“When you meet the 10-year-olds, they’re basically like mates,” Ko said. “It is kind of awkward showing the skills because they’re really nearly the same age. They expect me to be good. That’s why they’re out there.
Expectations are rising. She can tell by how people look at her when she posts something other than a red number. Ko insists she’s “not a robot,” although the mechanical way she takes apart a golf course suggests otherwise.
“When I don’t shoot under par, they’re thinking, Oh, my God! What the hell? She’s playing so bad!” Ko said.
Not to mention the media. Ko feels the pressure, and she is already worn down from repetitious questions. The worst part, she said, is that news conferences take time from her practice.
“But, I mean, Tiger Woods does it,” Ko said. “It will be done if you want to be world-class.”
From the outside, Ko appears innocent enough in her dark-rimmed glasses. The two tees sticking out of her ponytail are staple accessories, as are the heaps of bracelets on her right wrist. She carries enough food in her golf bag to satiate the gallery.
On Sunday, Ko accidentally left her yardage book at the house where she stayed in Christchurch. Ko’s mother delivered the book 10 minutes before her daughter’s tee time. Wilson said that’s typical for this group, whether it’s missing balls or gloves or umbrellas. That kind of carelessness stops once the first tee shot is in the air.
Ko’s schedule this year is enviable to many pros. From Australia, she heads the next week to the LPGA event in Thailand. Her next stop is the NZ PGA Pro-Am Championship, a men’s event in Queenstown that’s likely to be Ko’s only other appearance in New Zealand his year.
From there she will head to the Kraft Nabisco Championship in California, followed by the LPGA Lotte Championship in Hawaii. She’ll defend at the CN Canadian Women’s Open and hopes to be invited to The Evian in France, now a major. Her 2012 U.S. Amateur title gets her starts at the U.S. Women’s Open on Long Island and Ricoh Women’s British Open at St. Andrews. She won’t be able to defend her Amateur title in Charleston, S.C., however, as it starts the day after the British Open ends. She’ll play two additional events, on the Japanese and Korean LPGA tours.
It’s a professional’s schedule without the professional’s paycheck.
Angela Stanford missed the cut in New Zealand but played alongside Ko in the pro-am at Clearwater as well as the first two tournament rounds. Stanford, who was the highest-ranked player in the field, got a speeding ticket on her way to dinner Friday evening. (Those pesky kilometers.)
“I bet Lydia Ko didn’t get a ticket today,” Stanford said to Jenny Gleason, who was sitting in the passenger seat.
“Oh, yeah; she can’t drive.”
Ko beat Stanford by 18 strokes in the first two rounds.
Some players chalk up Ko’s success to the fact that she hasn’t yet faced failure. They should be careful not to discount Ko’s mental toughness: She has seen the same sports psychologist weekly since age 11.
Will Lydia Ko burn out early?
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Wilson said.
Ever since Ko’s parents first heard praise heaped upon their small child for a having a beautiful golf swing, she has been groomed for this life.
“It has been in her blood since age 6,” Wilson said.
And what if she doesn’t burn out? Ko could become the best we’ve ever seen.