Taking the golfing world by storm

New Zealand youngster Lydia Ko has impressed all with her natural talent
Last Updated : 15 September 2012, 15:31 IST
Last Updated : 15 September 2012, 15:31 IST

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Golf prodigy Lydia Ko was asked how she would cope with being the youngest competitor at the Women’s British Open, which was like asking Sean Lennon how he deals with being the son of a Beatle.

The 15-year-old Ko knows no different. At 7, she competed in the New Zealand Women’s Amateur, an event she won seven years later. At 12, she finished tied for seventh in a Ladies European Tour event won by Laura Davies, nearly 34 years her senior.

In January she became, at 14, the youngest champion on the Australian LPGA Tour with a four-stroke victory at the New South Wales Open. Last month Ko was crowned the US Women’s Amateur champion and became the youngest winner of an LPGA event when she turned back a Canadian Women’s Open field that included 48 of the top 50 golfers. At 15 years, 4 months and 2 days, Ko was more than a year younger than the American Lexi Thompson when she won a tour event last September.

“For a few tournaments I’ve been the youngest competitor and I’ve coped,” said Ko. “I don’t really think about my age or what I’ve done really. I’m just one of the 156 players that are here.”

Ko is as modest as her drives are straight. But not since Bobby Jones won the British Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on his way to the calendar Grand Slam has the seaside course been buffeted by such a gale force amateur talent. Ko’s admirers include Tiger Woods, who won the British Open when it was held here in 2006, and his former caddie, the New Zealander Steve Williams.

The American golfer Stacy Lewis, who is ranked No 2 and has been paired twice with Ko, said she was “beyond impressed” with Ko’s game. At Ko’s age, Lewis, 27, said, she was struggling to break 80 and make her high school team. Is Ko the best 15-year-old golfer Lewis has seen? “Oh, for sure,” she said. “By far.”

Appearances can be deceiving with Ko, who is 5 feet 6 inches, with a round face framed by black-rimmed glasses. Her unguarded smile, compulsive giggling and tendency to view life as one big loving cup overflowing with awesomeness cast her as your typical teenager.

Perfect tempo

Walking with her mother, Tina, Ko draped herself over her mother’s back like a sweater, crossed her arms around her mother’s neck and held on tightly. When Tina Ko bent at the waist, Lydia’s feet left the ground and her laughter drowned out the wind. It is not until Ko swings a club that she stands out. Her swing is one by which musicians could practice their timing. Its perfect tempo was there from the beginning.

Ko’s first and only instructor, Guy Wilson, recently watched footage of a 9-year-old Ko on the golf course and was struck by how little her swing had changed over the years. “That was crazy to see that,” he said.

Ko was 5 when she showed up for lessons at Pupuke Golf Club in Auckland, her interest in the game sparked by an aunt’s gift of a 7-iron and a putter. Ko’s parents had recently moved to New Zealand, motivated as so many immigrants are by its high-quality free education and its wide-open spaces.

Neither of Ko’s parents plays golf despite the game’s immense popularity in their native South Korea. “I don’t know where she gets it,” said Tina Ko, who travels with her daughter and filled in as her caddie during the US Women’s Amateur. From the beginning, Wilson said, Ko showed a natural inclination for the sport.

“She’s got the ability to square the clubface up like no one,” he said. “It’s pretty freaky, and really, ..really early you could see it.”

Ko started out working four days a week with Wilson, who endeavors to put the fun in fundamentals. Rather than drum in the proper technique through endless hours on the practice range, Wilson intersperses instruction with games. On videos, an 8-year-old Ko performed cartwheels on the greens and galloped down the fairways.

“It’s difficult with a little kid to try to keep them interested,” Wilson said. “I made little games so it wasn’t so one-dimensional.”

Fine-tuning job

The job of fine-tuning Ko’s game rests with not only Wilson, but also an entire pit crew, subsidised by New Zealand’s organizing body for golf. The group includes a physiotherapist, a trainer and David Niethe, a mental skills coach who has worked with Ko for five years.

Wilson said Ko’s composure on the course could not be taught. “She just tends to sort of phase most things out and put herself in her own little environment and hit shot after shot,” he said. “If I knew where that came from, I could probably sell it and make millions off it.”

But Wilson is protective of his most famous protegee, who will have played in upward of 30 events around the world by the end of the year. He has turned down multiple invitations for Ko to play in men’s pro events in New Zealand, explaining, “We’ve got to be very careful what environment we put her in.”

He has seen the pitfalls that have upended other female golf prodigies, most notably Michelle Wie. Wie faded gradually after a promising start as a teenager, managing to win only two titles, and Wilson said, “I don’t think Wie is enjoying what she is doing.”
After her victory in Canada, Ko was thrilled to receive a congratulatory message on Twitter from Wie, whom she counts as a childhood idol along with Woods.

She was taken aback when told that Woods said she is a better golfer than he was at 15.

“It’s awesome to have people like him saying those kind of kind words,” Ko said. “It kind of makes me more inspired. Yeah, it’s awesome because they are all of the people I really look up to.”

Published 15 September 2012, 15:31 IST

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