Phenoms Lydia Ko and Jordan Spieth Are Good For The Future Of Golf
As the Thanksgiving holiday quickly approaches, I'd like to give particular thanks for this new generation of golfers on the LPGA and PGA tours, led by Lydia Ko and Jordan Spieth.
For all of the doomsday specialists who predicted the end of the LPGA Tour when Annika Sorenstam retired, and the same now that it is apparent Tiger Woods' skills are no longer driving the bus on the men's side, I say hang on just a minute. Let's take a look at Ko and Spieth, youngsters who seem like the "kids" you'd love to have in your neighborhood because they are so weirdly normal.
At ages 18 and 22 respectively, Ko and Spieth have rewritten the record books and the timelines for golf by dominating their respective tours and reaching the top of the world rankings in their own distinctive manner -- and at lightning speed.
You wouldn't build the model for a "perfect" golf swing on either of their moves from a technical standpoint, but when the sum of their actions, stats and -- maybe most important of all -- their guts, determination and outlook are summed up, you had in Ko the youngest world No. 1 (male or female) at age 17 years, 9 months and 8 days and in Spieth, not only a world No. 1 but the only player to win the Masters and Tour Championship in the same season and also finishing just four total shots shy of winning the Grand Slam.
I first heard of Ko during a conversation with Steve Williams, Tiger's former caddie, in 2009. He told me to keep an eye on this then-11-year-old from New Zealand because she was starting to rip through amateur competitions in his homeland. I sort of nodded and scoffed. Do you know how many times I've heard that sort of chatter? Well, sure enough, less than three years later, she won an event at age 14 on the ALPG Tour, a professional event.
I learned of Spieth that same year with my own eyes while covering his victory at the U.S. Junior Amateur in New Jersey for Golf Channel and NBC. There was an obvious and different sort of calm, respect and maturity that made him stand out from all the other kids.
In a day when the "bomb and gouge" and "distance is king" philosophies seem to be in vogue, these two players excel without being phenomenally straight or long off the tee. Ko comes in at 64th in driving distance and 48th in driving accuracy, while Spieth sits at 78th in driving distance and a mere 80th in driving accuracy.
Ko hits almost 10 percent more greens in regulation than Spieth (77 percent to 68 percent). Where they both excel is getting the ball in the hole. Both are in among the top three birdie producers on their tours, getting the ball up and in from bunkers nearly 60 percent of the time, and are both in the top 10 in their respective putting stats. That adds up to old fashioned scoring and five wins each, with Ko still having a chance to add a sixth this week at the LPGA's season finale.
They each have crazy golf skills, we know that, but here's the thing that really sets them apart: Golf isn't the only driver in their lives.
Where Woods was cold, ruthless and, at times, extremely uncomfortable in social and public settings, Spieth is completely opposite, sharing his life and desire to spend both quality and quantity time with his friends and family on social media. His tweets aren't programmed bites or press releases, but a real human being loving the opportunities his talent has given him and the responsibilities that also come with that gift.
Where Sorenstam could also be described as programmed, icy and somewhat robotic, Ko has an outgoing manner and an approachability that doesn't always go with ascending to the top of the game at such an early age. She spoke openly early this summer about missing friends at home, missing the opportunities to be just a kid, and how she would be making more trips home for that needed balance. She is also still talking about walking away from the game at age 30 to be a psychologist.
As we learn more and more about the downfalls of early sports specialization -- adult inactivity in a sport because it was forced on them as a child, serious overuse injuries and general burnout -- let's applaud these two world beaters and how they have set themselves apart in the most normal ways, recognizing the whole person before the focused-to-a-fault professional athlete. They are good for golf, good for the youth who look up to them, good for their tours and, yes, I'd want these two weirdly normal kids to hang in my neighborhood because they just get it.