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How No. 1 Lydia Ko stays humble as her stardom grows

Lydia Ko may be the top-ranked golfer on tour, but with the Olympics nearing and 11 titles under her belt at just 18 years old, she still remains as humble. David Cannon/Getty Images

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- It was as if they had known each other forever, attended sleepover camp together, shared secrets the rest of us could never know.

By the time golf prodigy Lydia Ko and Olympic phenom Missy Franklin walked off the stage Tuesday at a women's sports conference prior to the ANA Inspiration tournament at Mission Hills Country Club, they were best friends.

Those who witnessed their spontaneous rapport were thoroughly charmed.

Unfortunately for the LPGA, the group numbered only about 350 people who were mostly golf fans already familiar with the No. 1 women's player in the world and her engaging personality. Two and a half years after bursting onto the ladies pro tour, the rest of the world remains largely unaware of one of the greatest young athletes in sports history.

All of which is just fine with Ko and her family, and something Franklin seemed to understand.

Even with five Olympic swimming medals, Franklin, 20, said she wouldn't presume to dispense advice to her own young self any more than she would to the 18-year-old Ko.

"This journey is yours," Franklin said turning to Ko, who shot a 2-under 70, three shots off the pace in the first round of the ANA Inspiration on Thursday. "It's how you develop into the woman you're going to become and the golfer you're going to be. We all go on the journey we're supposed to go on."

For Franklin, that journey has developed into a life, she now jokes, in which she can "no longer go to the grocery store in my pajamas."

Ko's journey, which now includes 11 LPGA titles in less than two and a half years on tour, and 23 straight weeks in her second stint at the top of the world rankings (42 weeks overall), has obviously been a magical one as well. But even after golf's inclusion in this summer's Olympic Games for the first time in 112 years, Ko will likely be able to go grocery shopping in a bathing suit if she so desires, or walk through nearly any mall outside her native New Zealand, Florida residence or golf-savvy Korea without being recognized.

"The thing is, she doesn't think of herself as a celebrity, that's the most important thing," said Sura Ko, 27, Lydia's only sibling, older sister and manager. "She thinks of herself as an athlete, and in her mind, an athlete is not a celebrity.

"She just focuses on her game. She's not into endorsements that much, so our family doesn't really push her too much on that. That's a main point in our family. She wants to be a better golfer and a better person at the same time."

The other players on tour still genuinely seem to like Ko, even as former No. 1 Stacy Lewis recently admitted, "I think she knows how good she is, but I wish she would kind of own up to it sometimes."

Still, Ko works it effortlessly to her advantage -- even when she talked about the Olympics earlier this week.

"It's just been a dream," Ko said. "I mean, I'm not very good at any other sports."

Nothing else?

"I would be the last when we did athletics day," Ko quipped. "I might have to write a sick note to say I can't do it."

How about archery?

"Yeah, I tried that in grade seven," she said. "My PE teacher said, 'Lydia, lucky you have golf. You should stick to it.'"

Even as the LPGA quietly wishes Ko would help elevate the sport along with her own brand -- the Olympics being a potentially perfect platform -- the thoughtful teenager steers delicately around the subject.

"Everybody watches [the Olympics]," she said. "Sometimes you don't know what's going to be on and you go, 'Oh, there is synchronized swimming.' There are all these sports. I've just turned the TV on and I've looked and I've Googled the person that's been on there. And I go, 'Wow, that person has got a record,' and you learn about these things."

Jon Podany, the LPGA's chief commercial officer, said the tour can only hope Ko's personality and ability will sell itself to the worldwide Olympic audience, that general philosophy applying to all of their players and radiating down from Commissioner Mike Whan.

"Time and time again, we hear from people who come to an LPGA event or watch on TV and engage for the first time, that they fall in love with the personalities of our players, how approachable they are and the kind of experience we can offer," Podany said.

"So we're just excited about so many more people being exposed to that, no matter how it shakes out. There's so much more media there, there's so much more attention, there's going to be so much more television around the world and I think Lydia and all our players will shine in that environment because they're so appreciative of the opportunity and I think that will come through."

When Ko was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people two years ago, she elected not to make a special trip to New York to attend the red-carpet gala. And when she was invited to attend a pro-am party in Atlantic City a few months later, she decided to fulfill her obligation to volunteer at a local food bank instead.

Still, her management team at IMG tries. Last year when the tour went through San Francisco, Ko played a mock par-5 hole across the city from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, Lombard Street and back to the bay. Earlier this month, in a video opportunity that went viral, Ko visited the Golden State Warriors, where LPGA fans and avid golfers Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala asked for her autograph and took putting lessons.

"[LPGA players] are given an opportunity to grow their brand and help the LPGA also grow our own portfolio of potential sponsors," LPGA chief communication officer Kraig Kann said. "It's a team concept. And we talk about it."

Franklin, who found common ground with Ko in their choice of majors (psychology) and secret talents (good handwriting), agreed it was unfortunate more sports fans are not aware of Ko.

"There's so much inspiration there, and she's such an amazing story and has so many accomplishments that so many young athletes -- and not just young golfers -- would benefit from," Franklin said. "That's why I think being on an Olympic stage is so wonderful for golfers [and] for Lydia to get them in that spotlight, so that after all their hard work, they get a piece of that.

"I know they have different tournaments that is their big spotlight as well, but there's something special about the Olympics that really elevates that to a whole new level."

Ko holds steadfast to her plan of retiring from golf by the age of 30, giving her a narrow window Lewis thinks she should keep in mind.

"She's going to get to a point where [outside obligations] are too much, and my thing is, you want to embrace it and take advantage of that opportunity, and right now, she's at a point where she can handle it," Lewis said. "She's young and she doesn't know any better really. If she's 10 years older, she's probably not in the same boat.

"I would tell her right now to embrace it and go for it. Why not if she's comfortable doing it and the most important thing is she still plays good golf. As long as she does that, the sky's the limit really, because when you're No. 1 in the world you've got to take advantage of that opportunity."

Obviously, it's up to Ko, and her sister does not deny that, as she matures, her interests may evolve beyond a newfound interest in makeup. Just don't bank on a significant change.

"Just being on the road and spending time with family and just playing is the main thing going around her in the moment, and I don't think the Olympics are going to change her that much," Sura said. "It's exciting, but she's a very deep, calm person.

"That's what I've noticed for the last 18 years ever since she was born. She didn't even cry when she was born, so that's pretty calm."