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Ko-efficient

By: Tony Dear


As she walked off the tee at Vancouver Golf Club's par-5 13th hole in the final round of the Canadian Women's Open on Sunday, Lydia Ko delved into the bag of cherry tomatoes her mom had no doubt packed for her that morning, popped one into her mouth and gingerly approached playing partner Jiyai Shin to ask if she'd like one.

Fifteen-year-old Ko, who had just birdied three holes in a row and was partway to her fourth and a four-stroke lead, was clearly more nervous about how Shin might react than the prospect of making LPGA Tour history. Swinging with an enviable tempo, and walking between shots like it was just another weekend round at Takapuna GC in Auckland, New Zealand, where she started getting serious about the game eight years ago, Ko had the relaxed air of someone who genuinely believed they were good enough to be in that position but that it would be no big deal if they didn't go on to win.

She wasn't casual certainly, nor was she hyperventilating. Shin, by contrast, walked with her head down. She looked up briefly to acknowledge Ko, but politely declined the offer of the tomato.

After birdieing the par-4 15th, her fifth birdie in six holes, Ko high-fived members of an appreciative audience on her way to the 16th tee. For a moment it obviously crossed her mind whether it was okay to do that. Was it too soon to be high-fiving; was it disrespectful to her playing partners; was it showboating? What the heck, she laughed nervously and did it anyway, clearly amused that all this adulation was for her. Shin, a former world No. 1 and major champion, and No. 2-ranked Stacy Lewis, also a major champion, strode purposefully on, wondering how they might reel the teenager in.

Ultimately though, there really wasn't anything Shin, Lewis or anyone else in the chasing pack could do to prevent Ko's march (or rather, stroll or saunter) to victory. By shooting a superb 5-under 67 and completing 72 holes in 13-under 275, the Korean-born Kiwi won by a margin of three shots over Inbee Park, and became the Tour's youngest-ever champion, beating 16-year-old Lexi Thompson's record that had stood for all of 11 months.

It's inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between Ko, Thompson and Michelle Wie, one of Ko's biggest heroes, who played in the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Hawaii a few months after making her first appearance at the U.S. Women's Open at age 13.

On the surface, Ko's game appears very different to that of Wie and Thompson, who both bomb it and are ranked in the top seven in driving distance on the LPGA Tour. Ko, meanwhile, just about kept pace with Shin, who averages only 244 yards off the tee and is currently 121st on Tour. In a head-to-head-to-head competition, Ko might find herself 30 to 40 yards behind her big-hitting opponents on every hole requiring a driver.

But while Thompson and Wie draw gasps from unsuspecting galleries who had no idea women - teenaged women in Thompson's case, could bludgeon a ball so hard, Ko had the crowds cooing. She's leading the tournament, won the U.S. Women's Amateur two weeks before, and claimed the Women's New South Wales Open on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf (ALPG) circuit in January, at the age of 14, so you know she's good.

But for a 15-year-old to swing a golf club so efficiently, not to say beautifully, extracting every possible yard out of her small frame was extremely impressive.

Ko hit her 20- and 22-degree hybrids into a couple of medium-length par-4s and at the par-3 12th that Lewis, who struck the ball on a noticeably lower, more commanding trajectory, reached easily with mid and short-irons. But Ko wielded the club with such confidence and precision, it didn't matter one bit. Indeed, Lewis admitted afterwards she was chuckling at how predictable Ko's arrow-straight hitting became.

After hoisting a trophy half as tall as her, Ko was asked how the win might change her immediate and future plans. Some asserted she'd most likely be turning professional within a year, while Ko herself remained adamant she would remain amateur, complete high school and go to college, despite the fact she has missed a total of 75 days of school this year due to her various golf trips. She has been taking eight correspondence courses while traveling this summer, but admits her school work has suffered and that she is missing out on the normal stuff teenagers get to do.

She wants to go to Stanford, from which Wie graduated earlier this summer and where Tiger Woods won 11 college tournaments before leaving at the end of his sophomore year for a life of a touring pro, but suspects the academic entrance requirements may be too stiff. UCLA and Pepperdine have been mentioned as alternatives.

Physically, Auckland is 6,500 miles from Los Angeles, but it's 10 million miles away metaphorically. When Ko does reach college age and comes to the U.S. full-time, not only would she have to combine golf with undergraduate studies, the spotlight focused on her would also be 10 times brighter than it ever was in New Zealand. It could be argued Wie hasn't done a sterling job of dealing with all the attention she has received the last few years, and Ko and her parents would surely be keen to avoid some of the traps Wie fell into.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Ko is in the 11th grade and, for now at least, flourishing in an altogether quieter, more laidback culture half a world away. There is no hurry. Although if she is going to keep on winning big tournaments and making history, she might like to take a quick lesson in diplomacy.

On Sunday she hardly put a foot wrong, playing brilliant golf, giving a fine acceptance speech in which she thanked all the right people, and charming the press in the media center an hour after her final putt dropped. It was storybook stuff . . . until the very end of her press conference when she was asked how winning the Canadian Women's Open compared with her U.S. Women's Amateur victory.

"[This is awesome], but I didn't cry after this one, like I did at the Amateur," she said. "I feel like the Amateur was a better win." There was no astonished silence, but you could sense a little unease from one or two of the Canadians in the room.

It was her first slip, albeit very minor and completely pardonable for one so young. Still, Lydia Ko is going to be held to some very high standards from now on. She'll just have to get used to it.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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