With Historic Win, Lydia Ko Proves Far Beyond Her 18 Years Once Again

While more seasoned players buckled under the pressure at the Evian Championship on Sunday, New Zealand's Lydia Ko calmly came from behind to win her first LPGA major at the ripe age of 18. JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images

There is an ease to the way Lydia Ko goes about her work. She doesn't get too glad. She doesn't get too mad. She doesn't swing too hard. She doesn't paint by the numbers; she paints the corners because she is, golf-wise, far beyond her 18 years.

A smile. A shrug. A success.

She is used to it, and so are we.

The best athletes have a gear that exceeds technique or strategy and is more than the ability to stay cool when their rivals are melting from pressure. The best win when others expect them to win. The best athletes raise the bar and keep clearing it, even though expectation can be the trickiest opponent of all.

On Sunday in France at the Evian Championship, Ko achieved what so many thought she would, a major victory sooner rather than later, a triumph that gave the New Zealander another distinction that makes her special.

An LPGA winner at the record young age of 15 who became the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world at the unprecedented age of 17, Ko checked off the last of the incredible, early milestones that were available to her.

With a rousing, closing comeback at Evian Golf Resort -- shooting the first final-round 63 by the winner of an LPGA major -- Ko (18 years, 4 months, 20 days) eclipsed Morgan Pressel (18 years, 10 months, 9 days, when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco) as the youngest female major champion. Only Tom Morris Jr. was younger (17 in 1868 when he won the first of his four Open Championships).

It is difficult to compare golfers of different generations, much less centuries, but Ko is in rare company. The victory was her fourth LPGA win of 2015 and the ninth of her young career. The only thing Ko hadn't done was win a major, and she accomplished that with aplomb on Sunday.

Through seven holes, American Lexi Thompson, on the strength of three consecutive birdies, led Ko by three strokes. Over the next hour, however, the complexion of the tournament changed drastically. Thompson bogeyed No. 8. while Ko birdied the ninth, 11th and 12th holes to take a one-shot lead. After the par-3 14th -- where Thompson missed the green, flubbed a pitch and made double-bogey -- Ko had a three-stroke advantage.

Ko birdied No. 15 and No. 17, and if happiness for a golfer isn't walking to the 18th hole on a Sunday with a five-stroke lead in pursuit of your first major, there is no such thing as happiness. Ko's final stroke, a 20-foot birdie putt, gave her a six-stroke victory.

"Yeah, a couple teardrops," Ko told reporters afterward. "I didn't totally cry-cry. But I kind of got a little overwhelmed."

Relief? Sure, that was part of the equation. No one will ask Ko when she is going to win a major, and she did have mixed results in the four 2015 majors leading up to Evian. After a tie for 51st at the ANA Inspiration, Ko missed her first LPGA cut at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. She got going in a better direction at the U.S. Women's Open, where she tied for 12th. In the Ricoh Women's British Open she had a good chance to win but tied for third place as Inbee Park rallied to win with a 65.

It was in the wee hours in New Zealand when Ko won, and soon she was posing with the trophy with a Kiwi flag draped around herself. For the New Zealand golf fans who hadn't stayed up to keep track, it would be a happy wake-up to the news that Ko, who moved there with her family as a young girl and has been a proud New Zealand citizen since she was 12, had enjoyed her brightest golf moment yet.

That Ko would win her first major on the hilly Evian design was fitting, because she first learned how to improvise and create shots at Pupuke Golf Club, an Auckland course where golfers are often faced with unlevel stances. That's where she started becoming the amazing kid-golfer who was doing amazing things.

The way Ko took to golf after beginning to take regular lessons from a young pro named Guy Wilson -- the knack that she had and her unrelenting desire to fuel her ability through extended practice -- had Kiwis convinced she had every chance to be a junior who would turn into a wonderful golfer.

The coolness that she showed Sunday when trailing Thompson by three has been on display for a long time on different stages. Now she's on Broadway, with a full house.

Wilson should take a bow for all he did to aid Ko's development. He learned as she did, carefully and skillfully nurturing a rare talent. Her former mental coach, David Niethe, should also take a bow; he helped Ko develop her fine golf mind. Veteran Kiwi pros John Lister and Bob McDonald offered strategic tips for several years during regular games with a child who played like a grown-up and seldom seemed to tire of golf.

The last couple of years, upon Ko's move to the United States, coaches David Leadbetter and Sean Hogan have refined Ko's effective swing, adding a draw to her repertoire and giving her some useful distance. She utilizes Mark Sweeney's AimPoint Express technique to read greens. She consults with sports psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr on the mental side and relies on an experienced and trusted caddie, Jason Hamilton.

Regardless of their teachers and their tools, though, in the crunch of competition golfers are as alone as they ever were. It is never as easy as it looks. Ko knows, now more than ever.