With 12 wins on the LPGA tour and victories in the past two majors, the 19-year-old Ko has dominated like Tiger Woods did during his glory days on the PGA Tour.
No one in history, male or female, has been so dominant in golf so young.
With 12 wins on the LPGA Tour and victories in the past two majors, it’s no wonder Lydia Ko is the world’s top-ranked player and the one to beat in this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club.
But Ko, who turned 19 in April and twice has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, undoubtedly could walk through Bellevue Square virtually unnoticed.
KPMG Women’s PGA Championship
When: Thursday-Sunday, with practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday.
Where: Sahalee Country Club, Sammamish
Purse: $3.5 million (second-highest on LPGA Tour).
Defending champion: Inbee Park
Tickets: Single-day adult tickets are $10 for practice rounds, $20 for the first two rounds and $25 for the final two rounds. Tickets for the week are $75. Juniors 17 and under are free with a paid adult. To purchase or for more information, go to kpmgwomenspgachampionship.com
Although she has dominated like Tiger Woods did during his glory days on the PGA Tour, Ko has yet to enter the consciousness of more than just die-hard golf fans.
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There is, however, no mistaking the talent of the New Zealand teenager.
So let’s meet Lydia Ko, who comes across so humble and so sincere that she always seems to be speaking from her heart despite being carefully managed by marketing company IMG, the same firm that represents Woods.
She is so gracious that opponents she beats on a regular basis seem to genuinely like her.
That’s Ko, who exudes a girlish enthusiasm off the course yet plays golf with the maturity of someone decades older on it. With Ko on top, women’s golf is in good hands.
“I think the thing that impresses me the most is her discipline on the golf course and how she doesn’t ever panic. She’s very patient for a kid her age. Usually, kids want it right now.” — World Golf Hall of Famer Juli Inkster.
It’s easy to forget how young Ko is. If she had not been so good, she might have been just completing her first year of college golf. Two of her friends, fellow New Zealanders Julianne Alvarez and Wenyung Keh, also 19, just finished helping lead the Washington Huskies to the program’s first national title.
The morning of the NCAA final, Ko sent her friends text messages and tweeted before and after the event. Even while dominating as an amateur, becoming the No. 1 amateur in the world just after she turned 14, she resisted turning pro early and talked about going to college first.
But after 130 weeks as the top-ranked amateur and after winning two LPGA Tour events and making the cut in all 25 professional events she played, Ko turned pro in late 2013. Had she been a pro while playing 12 events in 2013, she would have made nearly $1 million.
Lydia Ko file
Nationality: Born in South Korea, she moved to New Zealand as a 6-year-old and became a citizen of that country at age 12.
World ranking: No. 1
LPGA Tour wins: 12
LPGA career earnings: $5,992,664
Major wins: 2
Highlights: Was No. 1-ranked amateur player in the world for 130 weeks and won the U.S. Amateur in 2012. … Became youngest player to win an LPGA event, claiming the CN Canadian Women’s Open at 15 years, 4 months and 2 days. … Became youngest player to win an LPGA major when she captured the Evian Championship last year at age 18. … Reached No. 1 in the world rankings at 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, the youngest ever, male or female.
So while Alvarez and Keh spent the spring worrying about finals and getting into the NCAA tournament, Ko was racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars and hobnobbing with the Golden State Warriors and having putting contests with Stephen Curry.
She became No. 1 in the world at age 17, the youngest ever for a man or woman. And somehow she manages to maintain an “I’m just happy to be here” attitude.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support from the fans no matter what tournament I go to,” she said in late April while defending her title at the Swinging Skirts event outside San Francisco. “It’s really cool to be on the tee, out there on the course, and the fans are as excited as I am.”
Ko looks and sounds like a 19-year-old. But there is a reason she plays golf with such composure. It’s because she has been competing internationally for years, and at the highest level.
“I can’t believe it’s already my third year on the Tour,” she said. “I feel like I’m getting old.”
Said Inkster, still competitive on the Tour at age 55: “You look at Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, In Gee Chun, they’ve played really competitive golf since they were 13 and 14 years old. … They’ve traveled all around the world, developing their games, getting ready for this opportunity. I didn’t play out of state until I was 18.”
“What part of her game do I respect? All of it. … The parts of her game that I would say are the most amazing are her putting and short game. I’ve never seen somebody get up and down from everywhere.” — Lexi Thompson, No. 3 player in the world.
Ko, 5 feet 5 with a slight build, ranks 133rd of 159 players in driving distance on the LPGA Tour, at 247.3 yards, and is not among the most accurate, ranking 57th.
That is usually not a formula for success, but Ko somehow shoots low scores round after round. It’s similar to Jordan Spieth on the PGA Tour. Spieth, who won last year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, excels despite not being among the game’s longest or most accurate drivers.
Ko makes up for any deficiency off the tee with an impeccable short game (she is second in putting) and with composure and a will to win that are rare at any age.
“She hardly ever hits a bad shot,” said Laura Davies, still playing on the Tour at 52 and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. “And she has a great mentality. She’s a lovely girl.”
Consistent is an adjective that comes up often in describing Ko. It’s something that can’t be appreciated in just one or two holes.
“She’s very methodical around the golf course and plays her game,” Inkster said. “You play with her and it’s like, ‘How did she do today?’ You look up and it’s 5 under. She knows how to score and get the ball in the hole.”
Ko is big on consistency, and it shows. She has missed just one cut in 76 events on the LPGA Tour, the only one coming at last year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Since turning pro, she has finished in the top 10 in 38 of 60 LPGA Tour events. Before finishing tied for 18th and 16th in her past two events, she had finished in the top 10 in 21 of her previous 25 events and in one stretch had top-five finishes in 13 of 16 tournaments, including five wins.
“If you come in second every week, you’re probably going to be the No. 1-ranked player anyway. That’s why I think with the rankings, it’s more about consistency and how many times you are able to put yourself in good positions.”
“She’s an awesome player, and I’m starting to get to know her more as a friend. … I really appreciate and look up to her and all she has done in her career.” — Brooke M. Henderson, 18, ranked No. 4 in the world.
Ko is one of the leaders of a youth movement on the LPGA Tour. Among the top 15 players in the world rankings, the average age is 23.5. Seven are 21 and under. By comparison, the average age of the top 15 men’s players is 30.4, and only two are younger than 25.
“I guess it’s because everybody’s so talented and they’re hard-working,” Lee, a 20-year-old Australian, said when asked why she thinks young players are having success. “A lot of us are fearless, and we can play pretty aggressively.”
Tour veterans such as Anna Nordqvist, a five-time winner on the LPGA Tour who will turn 29 on Friday, suddenly are having to ramp up their games to compete.
“They are so good, so early,” Nordqvist said. “I wasn’t even close to that level of talent at that age. I try to work as hard as I can to keep up with them. It’s just getting so competitive out here. And it pushes you to even work harder.”
Inkster wonders what impact starting on the big stage at such a young age will have on the current stars and how long they will last. But she is certain what it means now.
“Right now, the golf has gotten so good,” Inkster said. “They play such great games and such disciplined games.”
And Ko does it in a way that makes her easy to like, even when she’s beating you. Thompson talks about Ko’s “bubbly personality,” and Nordqvist calls Ko “such a great person.”
“She’s a good kid, and she’s good for the LPGA,” Inkster said. “She’s doing all the right stuff.”
|Leaders to watch|
|Entering this weekend, Lydia Ko was leading the Rolex Player of the Year rankings. A look at the LPGA Tour’s top five players:|
|Player||Scoring avg.||Drive avg.||2016 money|
|1. Lydia Ko||69.475||247 yards||$1,102,829|
|2. Inbee Park||71.920||250 yards||$253,381|
|3. Lexi Thompson||70.143||284 yards||$583,471|
|4. Brooke Henderson||70.000||267 yards||$538,344|
|5. Sei Young Kim||70.114||274 yards||$605,012|