Back in December 2014, Lydia Ko was world No.3 and had just recorded her fifth LPGA victory at the CME Group Tour Championship in November.
So what's changed in two months? Well, Ko is now world No.1 with six LPGA wins to her name after success at the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open at the weekend. Back in issue 136, bunkered's Michael McEwan profiled the teen sensation in a piece titled 'The Saviour of Women's Golf?'
It’s April 27, 1997. Just eleven days after his stunning first major victory at the Masters, Tiger Woods is the name on most people’s lips. Most, but not all. Over 7,000 miles from Augusta National, in the South Korean capital of Seoul, the name Hong and Tina Ko are most concerned with is ‘Bo-Gyung’. That’s the name they’ve settled on for their newborn baby daughter.
They don’t know it yet but Bo-Gyung, who will take the name ‘Lydia’ when the family emigrates to New Zealand in six years, has been born with a God-given talent for golf - a talent that will make her one of the most talked-about and hotly-tipped young players since Tiger himself.
Fast-forward to the present day. Lydia is now 17. She’s also a five-time LPGA winner - two of those wins coming as an amateur - and has topped the tour’s Order of Merit in her rookie season, earning over $3m in the process, including bonuses. She’s the world No.3, has been as high as No.2, and has yet to miss a cut in 42 LPGA starts.
This season, just four players finished with a better scoring average than her and only Stacy Lewis broke 70 more times (just three, actually) than Ko - although Lewis did play eight more rounds.
Did we mention she’s still only 17? Cast your mind back. What were you doing when you were that age? You probably weren’t a millionaire golfer with the world at your feet. But don’t worry. Neither are many of Ko’s friends.
“Sometimes they’re like, ‘Oh, my God you’re a millionaire and blah, blah, blah,’” she said after sealing victory in the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. “For us, $100 is huge money.
“But the great thing about my friends is most of them don’t play golf. When I’m hanging around with them, we don’t talk about golf or the hook I hit on seven or whatever. So that’s what I really love. I kind of feel like I can get off the course, get my mind free, and just be that teenager.”
Given all that she has achieved so far and so soon, it can be easy to forget that Ko is, indeed, still just a teenager. Sure, she looks it. Standing only 5ft 5in tall and with thick-rimmed glasses, she looks like she’d be more at home in the school library than on the fairways of some of the world’s top courses, whilst her website profile contains ‘insight’ that wouldn’t look out of place in the average teenage girls’ diary.
She is ‘a BIG fan’ of yogurt and frozen berries but, given the choice ‘would go with RICH chocolate. She loves cheese extreme and Hawaiian pizzas ‘but overall I LOVE all kinds of pizzas’. She wants to appear on ‘Wipeout’, likes Lady Gaga, loves to draw, read and play piano, and she can’t handle things being messy. Sorry, ‘MESSY’.
Yep, she’s still just a kid. Equally, though, like other phenoms before her, most notably Rory McIlroy, Ko talks with disarming maturity. The banner on the aforementioned website declares she is “Ready to take on the world”. A bold claim and one that she backs up with pragmatic modesty.
As an example, consider her answer to a question on how she’s going to find room for improvement after such a spectacular breakthrough season. “There is no perfection,” she replied. “My game needs work in every area.”
Sensibility, success and potential to get even better - it’s little wonder those who follow the women’s game most closely are giddy at unearthing such a gem.
For that reason, LPGA commissioner Michael Whan waived the organisation’s age requirement by-law to allow Ko to join the tour last October. In most cases, players must wait until they are 18 to join and, at 16, Ko would have been too young.
As Whan noted, however: “It is not often that the LPGA welcomes a rookie who is already a back-to-back champion.”
Even her rivals are impressed. Stacy Lewis, the current No.1 golfer in the women’s game, is on record as saying: “I don’t think she realises how good she is… She’s a great player. You know, she’s got that innocence about her.”
“She’s an incredible golfer,” added one-time teen phenom Michelle Wie. “I played with her a couple times last year and this year. She’s just so consistent. Nothing really fazes her. Whether she makes a birdie or bogey, it’s all the same to her. She’s fun to watch, for sure.”
Annika Sorenstam clearly agrees. A winner of 90 professional titles during her career - a record that Ko will surely have in her sights - the Swede wrote an endorsement of the New Zealander when, in April 2014, she was added to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s ‘Most Influential People’. Lydia, that is, not Annika. “She’s leading golf’s youth movement,” wrote Sorenstam. “She is exceptionally talented, mature beyond her years and well liked by golf fans and competitors alike.”
Scottish golf fans will get the opportunity to see her for themselves next summer when, all going to plan, she will play in the RICOH Women’s British Open at Trump Turnberry. Staging that event falls to the Ladies Golf Union and its chief executive Shona Malcolm is another of Ko’s many admirers.
“I think she’s an phenomenon and has already done wonders for the women’s game by getting us a few column inches we might not otherwise have got,” Malcolm told bunkered. “I first came across her in 2011 when she was playing for New Zealand in the Astor Trophy at Fairhaven and, even then, she stood out.
“She was a delight to watch. So controlled, so assured. She was just a wee thing but you could immediately tell there was something special about her. She has this presence, both on and off the course. That’s a quality only a few very special players have, and Lydia definitely has it.”
But how good can she be? Could she become the best female golfer ever? “She may well do,” added Malcolm. “It depends how long she wants to continue.”
That’s a great point. How long will Ko stick around? Annika left the tour at the end of 2008, aged 38. Lorena Ochoa was ten years younger when she called time on her own career three years later. There is a precedent for quitting early.
Reassuringly, Ko talked in the aftermath of her Tour Champs win of having a long career and, even more pleasing, she also seems to grasp the key ingredient to that: “Just have fun. That’s the most important thing. Doesn’t matter if I’m shooting a 70 or 75 or 65, I try and stay in the moment and really have fun and just enjoy every tournament.”
The New York Times has already anointed her ‘Princess Lydia’. If current trends continue, they’ll soon be upgrading her to ‘Queen’.
Lydia Ko in bunkered
This profile of Lydia Ko first appeared in issue 136 of bunkered (published: December 2014).