Lydia Ko. Photo by Getty
When Lydia Ko was a young girl, she was known to skip
rather than walk, and it's with that carefree nature that she
doesn't seem to feel pressure on the golf course.
The 15-year-old is as close to a golfing phenomenon as the
superlative suggests, and her achievements at such a young
age are vast.
She is the world's No 1-ranked amateur, and became the
youngest winner on the LPGA Tour when she claimed the
Canadian Women's Open in August.
She might not have won any money but she has earned plenty of
admirers, and terms like "prodigy", "star" and "outstanding"
are commonly thrown around to describe her.
Remarkably, particularly for someone so young, Ko seems
largely unaffected by the storm she has whipped up and she's
in no hurry to turn professional.
Mental skills coach David Niethe has worked with Ko since she
was 11 - as part of the Institute of Golf programme on the
North Shore - and believes her ability to handle pressure is
what sets her apart despite her tender years.
"... without a doubt the key to her success is the fact that
she actually feels more comfortable out there playing
tournaments than she does perhaps talking in front of a group
of people," Niethe says.
"She feels very relaxed out there and I think the key to her
success is that we've talked about the states that are
required to play at a high level. We've worked hard on
keeping it simple, and it's simply fun and focus, and we all
see that with Lydia.
"She will have an intense focus on a shot at hand then she'll
just have a whole lot of fun. She had a reputation for
skipping around as a little girl and you'll see her
constantly out there smiling, and those states contribute to
consistent performance. That's the key to her success. She's
so bloody consistent."
Ko doesn't have the stereotypical look of a golfer - or an
athlete with killer instinct - as she flashes a cheeky grin
that sits below her thick black-rimmed glasses, but she never
appears to be flustered on the fairways.
Like any amateur, she fields regular questions about when she
will turn professional because, for most, the lure of money
would be too strong to resist. But the financial rewards are
probably overblown by individuals who dream of earning the
sort of money Ko could.
She doesn't want for much and, even if Ko turned professional
tomorrow, rules dictate she wouldn't be eligible to join the
LPGA Tour fulltime until she was 18.
Golfers such as Aree Song and Morgan Pressel have
successfully petitioned the LPGA in the past to join the tour
as 17-year-olds, and young players can gain limited starts or
New Zealand Golf contributes towards Ko's expenses and her
trust account is managed by Phil Aickin. The account receives
donations from the likes of Sir David Levene to ensure she
can play at various locations around the globe.
Her Canadian Open victory would have netted her US$300,000
(NZ$364,793) but Ko insists she doesn't think about the money
and doesn't want to make the jump to the professional ranks
too quickly. She also might not welcome the extra
responsibilities that come with being a professional.
"The amateur status is quite big in the world," Ko says. "I
guess it'll depend on my performance level as well so, with
amateur status, you actually have time to practice.
"But when you're on tour you're playing in a tournament every
single week, so it's quite hard to go where you are based and
keep practicing. It's quite a different lifestyle."
Spare time isn't something Ko has a lot of.
In between golf lessons, tournaments and other commitments,
she had two weeks this year to study for her Year 11 exams at
Pinehurst College, and will take three classes next year as
she looks to maintain her grades. She enjoys a rare game of
mini putt with friends and tries to be a 'normal' teenager.
"I do lots of Facebook," she laughs. "And I like to watch
Korean dramas. In my spare time I kind of switch off and
don't really think about golf."
She hasn't mapped out her playing plans for next year but it
will likely include a handful of LPGA tournaments, although a
decision looms on whether she will defend her US women's
amateur title or contest the British Open in August.
Both tournaments are within a couple of days of each other
and have their own distinct appeal. The amateur tournament is
an opportunity for Ko to win back-to-back titles, and the
British Open will be played at St Andrews.
She is also mulling over attending Stanford University in the
US after she finishes high school in two years, when she
would be able to play as a professional.
You get the sense with Ko that she wants to prove she can
foot it with the world's best on a regular basis before she
Nobody is suggesting the Canadian Open victory was a fluke
but Ko would like to show she can do it again, and Michelle
Wie stands as an example that success as a young prodigy
doesn't naturally translate to success as a professional.
"I could have played extremely well in the Canadian Open week
and you never know what's going to happen," Ko says. "So I
think that's why golfers are interesting, because there are
so many ups and downs and obviously a person that's playing
consistently well will be the No 1 golfer."
There's no doubting her mental strength, but she might even
learn a bit more about herself next year when she begins
studying psychology, which will replace history in her class
"One of the reasons I'm taking it is because I might take it
and go to uni. It's something I'm seeing if I enjoy and, if I
enjoy it, I'll probably do it.
"Obviously it's a really hard subject so I'll just have to
see, and it's a subject that can help with my golf as well.
So it's quite a good subject for me as an athlete."
When she finally decides to flick the switch and turn
professional, the young girl might be skipping all the way to
the bank, too.