In drive to win, Ko shows she can downshift, too

Lydia Ko with Damon Hack as they do a mock driving test in a golf cart at Golf Channel studios in Orlando.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Lydia Ko first heard the term “burnout” from her instructor, David Leadbetter. She has been working with Leadbetter and his protege, Sean Hogan, for six months now, and their message is clear: find a hobby.

“So my agent got me a guitar,” said Ko, speaking of IMG Golf’s Michael Yim.

Danielle Kang added to the fun by giving Ko a Penny board for her 17th birthday last week. Before she hits the pavement, however, Ko is careful to keep the plastic skateboard on carpet.

“Before I go outside and break myself, I’m learning how to get on it,” Ko said from Golf Channel’s green room Wednesday morning. Ko spent four hours talking about golf for various shows at the Orlando studio as well as radio and print interviews. For “Morning Drive,” she wore a floral sweatshirt with a button-down shirt underneath and black pants. When it was time to change into golf clothes, Ko borrowed a belt straight off the dress of Kate Goff, an LPGA social media coordinator.

The jade and diamond earrings that Ko wore – a winner’s gift from last week's Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic – were worth more than what half the tour makes in a season.

“It’s kind of scary how things are happening really quickly,” said Ko, who is far more humble than flash. (She wouldn’t dream of spending that much on an accessory.)

There’s never been a 17-year-old quite like the rhythmic Ko, a native South Korean raised in New Zealand who now has six professional titles worldwide and is ranked No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings, behind Inbee Park.

When Ko’s mother Tina was asked between interviews about her daughter taking part in an instruction shoot for Golfweek sometime this year, Tina said, “What about today?”

Four hours later, Lydia was on the practice tee at the David Leadbetter Academy, shooting a swing sequence under a darkened sky.

That kind of turnaround is unheard of for a player of Ko’s stature. Heck, a touring pro of any caliber.

Ko’s victory at the Swinging Skirts on April 27 at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., capped one of the most incredible months in recent memory for the LPGA.

First came a showdown between two 6-foot American sensations in Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco. Thompson won her first major with ease that Sunday, but two weeks later Wie was awkwardly hula-dancing in her native Hawaii after a dominating performance at the LPGA Lotte Championship.

Add to that a victory by the bespectacled wunderkind at the inaugural Bay Area stop and it’s no wonder Golf Channel had its most-watched April in company history. (OK, so other programming was up as well, but overall the LPGA’s numbers were up 38 percent year-to-year.)

Two key milestones: The Kraft Nabisco’s weekend coverage posted record numbers for the year’s first major, and Lotte Championship’s primetime final round was the most-watched regular-season round since the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in April 2012. Lotte’s ratings were up 108 percent year-to-year.

“I think you know that I don't lack enthusiasm or optimism about the future of the LPGA (at any stage in my tenure),” LPGA Mike Whan wrote in an email, “but the ‘buzz’ of this 2014 season (TV numbers, media coverage and significant interest outside core golf circles) has helped lift the LPGA to a new level of excitement.”

The tour’s current momentum simply added to previous energy generated from Paula Creamer’s breakthrough victory in Singapore, Karrie Webb’s ageless grit in Phoenix, Anna Nordqvist’s double-dip and the one who started it all, Jessica Korda, who held off a seasoned Stacy Lewis in January on Paradise Island.

Lewis has played more than a supporting role in this show, rising to the occasion time after time. One gets the feeling she’ll get revenge at a place such as Pinehurst, site of the U.S. Women's Open, giving her a third major title and the one she covets most.

Juli Inkster, a 31-time winner in three decades on the LPGA, says Ko plays with a veteran's demeanor.

"She does everything well," Inkster said. "She doesn't get too high and too low. She stays pretty consistent. That's a good quality, as far as not only in golf but in life.

Those who follow the LPGA closely have waited years for the stars – particularly the American ones – to align.

On Monday after the Swinging Skirts, Ko changed her flight so that she could tour Alcatraz with her mother. She then took the redeye home to ChampionsGate, Fla. A scary South Korean film kept her from sleeping on the plane, so she instead slept Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., getting up for a few hours before dozing off again at midnight.

She was up at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, ready to tackle a media whirlwind.

“To me, first is all gone,” said Ko, when she reflected on how so many “firsts” already have been checked off the list. “Well, apart from first major.”

When asked whether she had been to Pinehurst, Ko said, “I’ve been to Pinehurst School,” referring to the private school she attended in Auckland, New Zealand.

Ko plans to visit Pinehurst in early June for the chance to watch the men play their U.S. Open at No. 2 before the women get their turn the next week.

When asked whether she planned to go early to practice, Ko said she wasn’t sure.

Ko’s mom then piped up from the across the table: “Next week.”

“Or maybe next week,” Lydia said with a laugh.

A not-so-subtle reminder that Ko is still a kid, riding in the proverbial backseat. In fact, the Kos don’t even have a car in the U.S. Lydia doesn’t have a driver’s license in New Zealand, let alone the U.S. And because Tina has only a Kiwi license, she can’t register for a car in America.

That means the Kos rent a car even when they’re home in Florida.

“Our neighbors must be like, ‘Man, they’re rich; they’ve got a new car every month,’ ” Ko said, laughing.

Golf Channel’s Damon Hack put on a pair of black-rimmed glasses and surprised Ko with a driving lesson on Wednesday’s “Morning Drive.” Ko had never heard of a “three-point turn,” and when asked to parallel park, she simply backed the cart into the curb.

Oh, well. Perhaps her next hobby will take place behind the wheel. No doubt she’ll find a road that leads straight to the top.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification