Lydia Ko's Impact On The Game Of Golf Extends Well Beyond Her Years
Lydia Ko was playing in an LPGA tournament in China the last week of October, so she was a couple of days late in finding out she was on Time magazine's roster of most influential teens for the second straight year.
"I didn't have very good Internet the first couple of days, but when I was able to look through Twitter I saw I got picked again," Ko said in a mid-November interview with espnW.com before the CME Group Tour Championship. "That's so cool, especially seeing the other teenagers. I see them on TV all the time. I love his song, or I love her fashion. The President's daughter, I get to be on the same list as her. What if President Obama saw it and saw me on there? That would be so cool."
No doubt Malia Obama's father, arguably the most avid golfer to live in the White House since Dwight D. Eisenhower, was aware of Ko before seeing the list of Generation Z notables that includes actress Maisie Williams, singer Shawn Mendes and swimmer Katie Ledecky.
As her 2015 season reaffirmed, Ko, a South Korean-born, New Zealand-bred 18-year-old, is one of the most precocious sports people of all time. No golfer has ever had so much success at such an early age.
"It definitely is another level," LPGA player Jane Park said. "She's one in a million."
Hype and hullabaloo are glued to some athletes who receive big contracts before they are big winners, their sizzle stemming from potential rather than performance. Ko is an understated champion about whom it is difficult to overstate her achievements.
After tying for second in the first event of the year, Ko, then 17, rose to the top spot on the Rolex Rankings, the youngest golfer, male or female, to be No. 1 in in the world. After winning three times in 2014, Ko's encore was a five-victory season, giving her 10 career LPGA titles, the first having come in 2012 at the record-breaking age of 15.
The most important of Ko's 2015 victories was her dominating effort at The Evian Championship in September, when she shot a final-round 63 to defeat Lexi Thompson by six strokes and became the youngest female major champion. At 18 years, 4 months, 20 days, Ko was six months younger than Morgan Pressel was when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco. You have to go back to Tom Morris Jr., who was 17 when he captured the 1868 Open Championship in a field of only a dozen competitors, for a younger major winner.
The Evian was Ko's last chance to break Pressel's record. She uncharacteristically had struggled in two of the LPGA's five majors in 2015, tying for 51st in the ANA Championship and missing the cut for the first time in 54 LPGA events at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, but there was a sense that Ko would get it done in her low-key way in France.
"She's a very humble sort of person. She's not one to shout from the rooftops," said David Leadbetter, who has coached Ko for two years. "But she was pretty confident she was going to play well that week. Certain players have that little bit of magic about them in that they do what is needed at the time. It was a challenge for her, and she's amazing in how she seems to rise to the occasion."
Ko cried on that triumphant Sunday in France and again two months later, following the season-ending event in Naples, Florida. Cristie Kerr won the CME Group Tour Championship, but Ko held off Inbee Park to become Rolex Player of the Year and claim her second consecutive $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus.
Not only is Ko the youngest player of the year, an award the LPGA has given since 1966, she joins Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Beth Daniel and Annika Sorenstam as the only players to be the tour's leading golfer the season after being its best rookie.
"She's just different. She's special," Ko's mother, Tina, said after her younger daughter's last round of 2015. "We cannot explain this type of thing. We didn't think she would be this good."
A decade ago, Michelle Wie was the "it" teen of women's golf, a tall and long-hitting Hawaiian who played in a PGA Tour event when she was just 14 and accumulated a startling six top-five finishes in major championships before her 17th birthday. Yet Wie didn't win an LPGA tournament until she was 20 and, at 26, having taken time out to go to Stanford and having struggled with her putter and with injuries, has only four career victories.
"Michelle came on the scene with such eye-popping ability," Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Judy Rankin said. "The first time you saw Lydia, you're thinking, 'Gee, she's a nice player. She could really do something someday.' Only you didn't realize some day was tomorrow. Lydia has accomplished as a teenager what it seemed like Michelle was destined for. I was on a radio show in New Zealand this year and suggested by the time Lydia was 20, she could have 20 wins. It wouldn't surprise me."
If Ko reaches the milestone Rankin mentioned, it probably won't change her even-keeled approach to golf, which Leadbetter calls "the perfect temperament for the game." When Ko shot a career-best 61 at this year's ISPS Handa New Zealand Women's Open, she knew it could have been better.
"It's a great day at the office," she said later in the year. "I still felt, 'Hey, I was that close to maybe shooting 59.' There is no perfect round."
Ko is taking online psychology courses at a Korean college, not only because the subject matter interests her but because the knowledge could enhance her life and her golf.
"I've never really sat down and said, 'Hey, why are you so good?'" Ko said. "I've got so many things to learn and so many things I can possibly do. I feel like I'm not fantastic. I'm not this legend or this god. If I was, I could be winning every week. That's what gods do."
In Ko's desire to improve, Leadbetter sees a resemblance to his most famous former student.
"In her single purpose, she's sort of a happier [Nick] Faldo," Leadbetter said, referring to the six-time major champion. "She's a perfectionist who doesn't like hitting a poor shot. Even on the practice green she doesn't like missing short putts, same as Nick. But she's probably a lot more accepting when things aren't perfect that she can get it back. You never really see her miserable about it."
Tina Ko said Lydia "was born to be nice." If so, she hasn't grown out of it, endearing herself to fellow players, LPGA staff and spectators with kind and genuine ways that underpin her personality.
"She's so down to earth, not a mean bone in her body," Park said. "Can't hurt a fly. She's just so humble and gracious and very thankful for her talent and all the great opportunities her talent has given her."
One of my favorite things is when a junior comes up to me at an event, or on social media, and says, 'You're my role model.' That's one of the biggest things that inspires me and makes me feel like I have to be better for them. If I can play a part in maybe making the tour a little bit better, it's a job well done.Lydia Ko
Meghan Flanagan, the LPGA's senior coordinator of tour media, has interacted with Ko a lot the past couple of seasons. Ko's golf skills aren't the only thing that stand out.
"She has that gift of treating the regular people like superstars and the superstars like regular people," Flanagan said. "We get a lot of requests, a lot of demands for her time, and seen very few times where she has looked or seemed overwhelmed. If she doesn't want to do something, she'll probably do it anyway."
Ko takes the mantle of being a star player more seriously than she takes herself, aware of how much the LPGA's pioneer players and subsequent generations gave of themselves to help the tour thrive.
"One of my favorite things is when a junior comes up to me at an event, or on social media, and says, 'You're my role model,'" Ko said. "That's one of the biggest things that inspires me and makes me feel like I have to be better for them. If I can play a part in maybe making the tour a little bit better, it's a job well done."
This year was not only a time of success but also transition for Ko, whose sister, Sura, 27, was hired by Ko's management company, IMG Golf, and began traveling with her on tour in the spring. (One of Sura's duties is making the crust-free peanut butter sandwiches her little sister likes to eat during rounds.) Sura accompanied Lydia to the Sime Darby LPGA event in Malaysia, the first pro tournament Lydia attended without one of her parents.
"I just had fun," Lydia said. "Went out most nights with Christina [Kim], Jessica [Korda], Michelle [Wie]. In five or six years' time, when my mom and dad get old, they might not be able to travel that often. It might just be my sister and I together."
Australian Jason Hamilton, Ko's caddie, said his boss "is kind of growing into a young lady. I don't see a lot of changes because I'm with her all the time, but I've met people who haven't seen her in a year or whatever, and they go, 'Oh, she's so much more mature and growing into her own person.' Not rebelling against her parents, but having her own opinions."
When Ko isn't playing or practicing, golf doesn't consume her.
"She normally goes through the yardage book before she goes to bed," Sura said. "That's the only time that we're talking about the golf thing. Other than that, we're talking about boyfriends and gossip and shopping lists."
Despite her outstanding season, increasing independence and growing stature in the game, Ko has a public profile much different from the pop-culture figures among Time's influential teens. In Orlando, Florida, where she now lives, Ko said she rarely is recognized away from the golf course.
"Once, when I went to Universal [Studios]," she said, "and this year on the boat on the way to Alcatraz [to film a video]. When I go back home to New Zealand, I get recognized more when I'm out."
If Ko ever draws attention to herself, it's with an occasional silly selfie on Instagram, not from over-the-top emotions on the course or outrageous behavior off it. There is an unassuming, blue-collar approach to her high-end game, which might never fascinate casual fans to a level commensurate to her talent.
"She's considerate of others, respectful of the other players," Leadbetter said. "Everybody loves her. She's like their little sister. She just happens to be kicking their butts. You know the competitive drive is in there, but it's very hard to see it. I think that's the beauty with her. She disregards the competition. It's about creating little goals for herself and the results taking care of themselves. It's not, 'I have to win. I have to beat her. I hope she three-putts.'"
Leadbetter could just as easily have been talking about Ko's 22-year-old counterpart on the PGA Tour, player of the year Jordan Spieth, who is more demonstrative when he is playing than Ko but is another young person known for his grace as well as his golf.
"I've never met him, but I would love to meet him," Ko said of Spieth. "He's awesome. If there's a word more than fantastic or unbelievable, he's that. Even if he's not hitting it perfectly, he's still great and makes birdies from everywhere. He's so calm, but at the same time has that fire. That's so cool."
That description sounds a lot like her, Ko is told.
She laughs, like a teenager, not a tour pro. "I don't know," Ko said, "but I'd love to meet him."
The feeling is probably mutual.