Lydia Ko. Photo by Getty
As the rain belted down during a practice round at the
British Amateur championships in Liverpool three months ago,
Lydia Ko's coach Guy Wilson took stock.
"Do you realise most of these players here will never do what
you did last week and win an LPGA event?" Wilson asked the
15-year-old golf sensation, referring to her remarkable
triumph in the Canadian Open.
Ko, nonplussed, shook her head and replied such matters
hardly dawned on her.
In an email conversation with the Herald this week
from Taiwan, where Ko is taking a break with her mother
Bonsuk after playing the final event of her momentous year,
the teenager elaborated.
"When I am away, I am focusing on my goals, not looking at
what I have achieved," she says.
"I'm quite surprised seeing the results on paper. I remember
at the North Harbour awards night being surprised when all my
achievements were listed."
What feats they are, ones that make her winner of the New
Zealand Herald sports achievement of the year. Her 2012
season was so spectacular that eventual golf superstardom and
riches almost seem a formality.
Ko, at 14, became the youngest winner worldwide of a
professional tournament at the New South Wales Open in late
January. She significantly topped that by becoming the
youngest ever LPGA tournament champion at the Canadian Open
in August when she defeated an elite field of the game's best
professionals aged just 15.
Ko also became the first New Zealand woman to win the
112-year old US amateur championship, won the Australian
amateur, and was the low scoring amateur at the US and
British Opens. She took individual honours by a massive eight
shots at October's world teams event in Turkey where New
Zealand were fifth.
It almost goes without saying that Ko is the world's top
ranked amateur, for a second year running.
While her professional landmarks grabbed most attention (the
LPGA mark is unlikely to be beaten, although a Canadian girl
has already pipped her by a few days as the youngest
professional tournament winner) Ko treasured the US amateur
victory in Cleveland most.
"I wanted to win that so badly - to me it is the most
important tournament," said Ko, who beat the 18-year-old
American Jaye Marie Green in the final.
"We prepared so hard for it and after getting a taste of the
environment with my coach last year, I knew it was
achievable. Nine rounds in seven days was a huge challenge.
It was the first time I've been emotional at golf. I think
that was due to my complete focus, and a bit of exhaustion."
This is a girl still feeling her way into an adult world. At
this year's Australian Open, just a week after her historic
NSW win, Ko shyly asked the leading American Morgan Pressel
for an autograph. Pressel told Ko it should be the other way
Wilson says Ko is forever humble, and even gets embarrassed
at beating adults. But incidents such as Pressel's autograph
comment are helping Ko accept she belongs in the top flight.
The foundation of her game comes from eight hours practice a
day at Gulf Harbour or the Institute of Golf in Albany, with
dad Gilhong in constant attendance.
Gilhong, a good tennis player, is Wilson's special assistant
to Lydia and he plays the major role of keeping her focused
during the long practice hours. The South Korea-born Ko has
been coached by Wilson since she was six.
Wilson says: "Gilhong has the Korean mindset, that hours and
hours of practice will get the results, which has been proven
anyway. In female golf, Koreans are the world dominators.
"And it works well between us. He's got Lydia's best
interests at heart and I can't see her every day. My Korean
has got a little bit better but his English isn't improving.
It's quite a fun environment for us though."
Ko exhibits a winning personality that includes a nice line
in humour. After the British Open, she got a big laugh
pretending to bathe in reflected glory because people thought
she looked like winner Jiyai Shin. As per usual, she was
working an adult crowd.
Ko, who nominally attends Pinehurst College in Albany, says:
"I guess the main losses to my life are not being able to go
out with friends, not being able to socialise and function
like most girls my age. Instead I've had to grow up quickly
on the golf course."
Wilson says: "Realistically, she can't be a kid. She can't
enjoy an outside life and fail at things - every time she
goes to play golf, which dominates her life, she is in the
Results, results. School study doesn't work on tour because
golf requirements dominate. Prior to the Taiwan tournament,
she downed clubs and virtually crammed the Year 11 curriculum
into two weeks of study, with expectations of 80 per cent
plus marks. The growing pains aren't only logistical and
Ko has grown about 10cm taller in two years, forcing constant
alterations to her game and preparation plus the length,
flex, loft, grip thickness and weight of her clubs. Added to
this, her feel for the clubs change as the young body does, a
critical factor to overcome in a sport of fine touch.
Until now, she had insufficient club speed to hit the three,
four and five irons correctly so carried three hybrid clubs
instead. This is not foolproof though, and required
imaginative solutions in the 150 to 180m range because the
lower ball trajectory makes it trickier to land on greens.
The five iron is about to be added to her bag.
"It has been a battle at times," says Wilson, "but she
adjusts like no one else I have seen."
Team Ko also includes another coach Craig Dixon, strength and
conditioning expert Jay Harrison, physiotherapist Brad Takai,
and mental performance expert David Niethe. Ko's family - she
has an older sister Sura - are the central force though.
The extent of Ko's success this year means she may take up
invitations to more major tournaments such as the Evian
Masters in France. Goals are being re-set, including more
life orientated aspects. But the pressure and temptation to
turn professional will only grow and IMG are favoured to take
over her management.
Wilson says: "She won't get a full card until 18 anyway and
if she turned pro now she would have to rely on sponsors
exemptions, which would only be good enough if she was
"I think Lydia needs to do a bit of living first which is why
she still wants to go to a US college - she sees it as a
chance to be self sufficient. She has led a bit of a
sheltered life. I noticed when we road tripped in the States
that she was oblivious to stuff like how much things cost."
One of Ko's major aims is to represent New Zealand at the
Ko says: "My goals will continue to rise. I'm beginning to
believe in what everyone has been saying."
- By Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald