Teen prodigy Ko makes believers out of LPGA rivals

Lydia Ko fired a 3-under 69 on Sunday to win the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic.

On Friday, as threatening skies began to open at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, Stacy Lewis stopped Lydia Ko from striking a birdie putt. Seconds later, it started to hail.

“As a rookie, I was like, ‘OK, let's just get this done,’ ” Ko said. “Luckily I was pulled back and then I made the putt when we returned.”

The learning curve isn’t too steep for 17-year-old Ko, but Lewis’ gesture might have saved Ko a stroke. Interestingly enough, the only thing that separated Lewis and Ko after four rounds alongside each other at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., was one significant stroke. Credit Lewis and the third player in that group, Michelle Wie, for that fine display of sportsmanship.

On Sunday, Ko hit what Lewis called “an unbelievable golf shot” from the rough on the 18th hole to 6 feet. She then rolled in the putt to keep Lewis, who had an even shorter birdie attempt, from sending the tournament into extra holes. A closing 69 ensured Ko of her third victory on the LPGA and first as an official member.

She fought back tears as she spoke about the significance of having her father, G.H., see her win on the LPGA for the first time.

“Tears nearly ran down my face after I made the putt and also during the speech,” Ko said.

“I try and make myself not cry of happiness, but it was coming to that point.”

Lewis also happened to play with Ko the first time she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open, two years ago. Ko was 15 then, and Lewis gushed over what she saw.

Not much has changed.

“Her best quality is that whenever she needs to make a shot or needs to make a putt, she does,” Lewis said. “It’s pretty hard to beat someone when they do that.”

Ko, who moved to No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings after Sunday's victory, now has six victories in professional events, including the 2013 Swinging Skirts event in Taiwan in December. Four of those victories came while Ko was an amateur.

The South Korean-born New Zealander endeared herself to fans during a post-round interview with Golf Channel on Sunday. When asked what it is about playing alongside Lewis that brings out her best, Ko said, “Someday I want to become a great player just like her.”

Lewis, incidentally, is now ranked No. 3.

As for being named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People on her birthday last Thursday, Ko said she would love to meet the other 99.

“They’re big names, apart from me, I think,” Ko said. “I would probably go out there with a sketch book and ask for an autograph from all of them.”

The maturity Ko displays on the golf course cannot be overstated. Ko can be fearless at times, but she knows when to play away from certain pins and take the conservative approach. She wins with local caddies, which proves she doesn’t rely heavily on someone else.

Ko said her short game has improved considerably in the past six months, and that steely up-and-down on the back of the 17th Sunday is a prime example.

Ko now has played in 25 LPGA events since 2012 and has never missed a cut.

“She’s like a damn metronome,” said David Leadbetter, who now works with Ko.

The only thing that seemingly could shake the unflappable Ko is injury or burnout.

The prodigy has worked tirelessly for this success, so it was nice to hear that Ko and her mother changed their flights Monday to stay in San Francisco to visit more with her father and have a rare chance to see some sights.

“I’ve seen my hotel room and the golf courses pretty much everywhere,” Ko said. “I’ve seen the Korean restaurant next door.”

Ko has traveled the world doing what she loves. But she won’t last long at the top without life balance.

“The mayor said there is a cable car downtown,” Ko said.

Who needs Fodor’s when the mayor is at your disposal?

Soak it in, young Ko, and celebrate these incredible feats. Enjoy the climb to No. 1, knowing it won’t last forever.

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