Lydia Ko gets down to business

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Playing for a paycheck for the first time, Lydia Ko fired a first-round 71, seven shots behind the leader.

NAPLES, Fla. -- Across a field to the left of the 15th hole of Tiburon Golf Club on Thursday, a large group of middle-school-aged kids were outside playing with hula hoops, balls and jumping ropes.

A few years ago, Lydia Ko could have been out there with them, shouting and running and goofing off. But she seemed very far away from that on this day. She was busy working.

Ko, 16, played her first round as a professional, although she's experienced as an amateur competing in pro events. Perhaps that's why she didn't have big butterflies as the LPGA's season-ending event, the CME Group Titleholders, got underway.

It was just normal. It didn’t feel too odd or special. That actually surprised me. I thought I’d be much more nervous.
Lydia Ko

"It was just normal," said Ko, who shot a 1-under 71 in the first round and is tied for 30th. "It didn't feel too odd or special. That actually surprised me. I thought I'd be much more nervous. I wasn't actually thinking about any money-related stuff. I was just trying to play my game, which was very helpful."

Germany's Sandra Gal is atop the leaderboard at 8-under 64 in the event, which has a 70 players and no cut. The field is made up of the top three finishers in each of the LPGA's previous tournaments this season.

Ko is one of this year's winners, having claimed the Canadian Women's Open in August. What she didn't get to claim there was the first-place check of $300,000. At this event, the winner will get $700,000.

Ko would need some pretty spectacular golf the next three days to take that prize home. But at least she's through this first pro day, and she actually had the best score of her group. Michelle Wie, one of the players Ko idolized when she was younger, shot even-par 72. Jessica Korda shot 2-over 74.

It was sort of an amusing juxtaposition of young versus "old" on No. 18 Thursday, as Juli Inkster (53), Karrie Webb (38) and Cristie Kerr (36) finished their round right before Ko, Wie (24) and Korda (20) did.

"She's a great player -- she's kicked our butts before, and she's 16," 31-time tour winner Inkster said of Ko. "It's just a different world. I started playing at 15; I wasn't even breaking 90 at 16. I hope she just enjoys it and keeps playing well."

Ko didn't start off so well Thursday, as she was 3-over through seven holes. That included a double-bogey on the third hole, when she called her attempt to get out of the crushed-rock trap "a bit too ambitious." She didn't get onto the par-4 green until her fourth shot, and then she two-putted.

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The putter started working for Lydia Ko on the back nine as she made three birdies.

On No. 7, she had what looked like a pretty makeable birdie putt of about 6 feet. But she left it short, and then rushed the par putt, hitting it too hard. A very frustrating hole.

"I think it was just a silly mistake," Ko said. "I have a tendency to kind of jam the putt in with the short ones. I think I tried to do that, but on a slight downhill slope was just too much."

But while the kid has just turned pro, she's won four professional events -- two on the LPGA Tour. So she knows how to bounce back from those kinds of situations. And she did, making a birdie putt from about 12 feet on No. 8. That was her first official birdie as a pro, coming around 12:37 in the afternoon. Observers took note of such specifics, but Ko didn't.

She was, however, pleased to have made a big putt before the turn.

"My birdie on 8 definitely helped," Ko said. "It kind of came in from the back of the hole, which was quite interesting. I thought I had missed it."

Over the back nine, Ko was very good, with birdies on Nos. 12, 15 and 17. She parred the other six holes. And with that, her first pro round was behind her.

"She played great today, and she looked really calm -- a lot calmer than I looked," Wie said of her own pro debut, in 2005. "I don't know why I was so nervous back then. I guess just the fact that you're a pro, and it actually counts.

"She just had one tough hole. But I definitely feel like she was a lot more comfortable on the back nine. She probably did have some nerves on the front nine, but she handled it great."

After chatting with reporters when her round ended, Ko was off to the putting green to do some more work. In some ways, it seemed rather odd to put so much emphasis on this particular round, since she already has spent considerable time on the LPGA Tour.

Still, it was subtly different. And although Ko said it really had no special feel to it, you also could tell she was relieved to have gotten it over.

Almost like an initiation.

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