Posted by: happyfan08 | August 30, 2012

Lydia Ko: School’s Out For Summer

Last week’s CN Canadian Women’s Open on the LPGA tour had a storybook ending, as 15 year old amateur Lydia Ko became the youngest girl in history to win on that tour.  Ko achieved this incredible feat at the tender age of 15 years, 4 months and a few days, shattering the record of 16 year, 8 months, which had been set only a year ago by Lexi Thompson.  Ko, who was born in South Korea but moved to New Zealand as a six year old, bested a field that included 48 of the top 50 players on the LPGA tour.  In the final round, she was paired with former world #1 Jiyai Shin and current world #2 Stacey Lewis, and beat them both handily.  Without question, this is one of the biggest stories of the year in golf.

Lydia Ko stunned the world at the CN Canadian Women’s Open

Although her win was historic and more than a little surprising, it did not come out of thin air.  Ko has been the #1 ranked amateur in the women’s game for well over a year, and had been shattering records for several years before that.  Young Lydia first took up the game seriously after she and her family relocated from Korea to New Zealand when she was just six years old.  She began taking lessons with a local golf coach, Guy Wilson, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that his pupil had some serious game.  There is amazing footage on Youtube of Ko as an 8 year old, practicing her game, doing cartwheels at the course, and hitting some truly amazing shots.  Lydia tells a reporter in the piece that she practices golf every day.  Even though she had only been playing for two years at that point, the seeds of potential greatness were already apparent.

Here’s a story about Lydia showing clips of her at 8 years old:

Ko was fortunate that another Korean transplant a couple of years older than she, Cecilia Cho, was blazing her own trail in New Zealand golf at the same time.  This gave her a rival against which to match her game as she moved up the rankings.  They met at the 2009 New Zealand Amateur Match Play finals where Cho, 13, defeated Ko, just 11.  In 2010 she was named to the national team, and stunned everyone by managing a 7th place finish at a professional event, the New Zealand Women’s Open.  The tournament featured a bunch of decently ranked professional golfers and was won by former world #1 Laura Davies.  Davies, who managed to beat Ko by just five shots, praised the unbelievable young starlet in her acceptance speech.   Ko would go on to win several more amateur events that year, and helped lead her home country to a second place finish behind Korea at the Queen Sirikit Cup.  She finished fourth in the individual standings at that tournament.

Lydia at the 2010 New Zealand Open, where she finished 7th as a 12 year old

2011 was in many ways Ko’s breakout year.  She had clearly risen to be the second best golfer in the women’s game in her country, behind only her friend and rival Cho, and early in the year, they would repeatedly clash for supremacy.  In January, she played at the New South Wales Open, a professional event on the Australian Ladies Tour.  She was brilliant all week, and came into the final hole with the lead. But nerves got the better of her, and she three putted the final hole to hand the tournament to pro Caroline Hedwall.  Had Ko won the event, she would have been, at 13 years old, the youngest woman to ever win a professional event, breaking the former record by more than THREE YEARS.  Soon thereafter, she managed a 4th place at the New Zealand Women’s Open, even better than her performance the previous year.

By March, Ko had risen to third in the world rankings, with her rival Cho rising to second.  It seemed like every amateur event, those two would be in the mix, slugging it out for the title.  She beat Cho at the Australian Stroke Play Championship in a playoff, but lost the Match Play in the quarterfinals.  She then won the New Zealand Stroke Play Championship, beating second place Cho by nine shots.  A few days later, those two met yet again, this time in the New Zealand Match Play final.  Once again, the younger Ko got the best of Cho, winning despite the fact Cho had won the title the two previous years (including in 2009, when she had beaten Ko in the finals).  Thanks to all these wins, Ko leapfrogged Cho and became the new #1 amateur golfer in the women’s game, a ranking she still holds as of this writing.

Lydia with one of her 2011 trophies

Later that summer, she finally had a chance to play in some of the biggest amateur events in Europe and America.  She was co-medalist at the US Women’s Amateur, but lost in the second round of match play.  She also bowed out early at the British Women’s Amateur.  But the 14 year old had gained valuable experience that would help her in the future.

Ko missed the next few months of action due to school and a wrist injury that required an operation to repair.  By early 2012, she was back at it.  In January, she won the Australian Match Play Championship, setting a truly astounding record in the process: she became the first woman to simultaneously hold the Australian Match Play and Stroke Play AND New Zealand Match Play and Stroke Play titles.  And she was still only 14.  It really boggles the mind.  And that wasn’t even the most amazing thing she did in January, let alone 2012!

Once again playing the ALPG’s New South Wales Open, the event she had narrowly missed winning the year before, she left nothing to chance.  She shot a blistering second round 64 to take a four shot lead, then hung on to grab the win, in the process becoming the youngest person, male or female, to EVER win any professional golf event.  She broke the previous record for women held by Korean star Amy Yang by two years.

Lydia holds the trophy that made her the youngest to ever win a pro tournament

Ko played in two more pro events in Australia, finishing 32nd at the RACV Australian Ladies Masters and 19th at the Australian Ladies Open, her first ever LPGA event.  Later in February she managed only a 17th at the New Zealand Open, a relatively weak result but still pretty impressive for a 14 year old.

Ko continued to hold onto the #1 ranking firmly.  That ranking earned her an exemption into the field of the US Women’s Open in July.  Ko was one of only three amateurs to make the cut.  For much of the weekend, she was well ahead of the other two amateurs, seemingly guaranteeing that she would get the low amateur honors.  But she struggled mightily on the final three holes, making big numbers and almost losing her entire lead over the other amateurs as a result.  Fortunately for her, she just held on and earned the prestigious award.

Her performance at the Open earned her the right to play in another USGA event a couple of weeks later, the US Girls Junior.  She finished second in the stroke play portion to the Thai star and defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn.  As Ko worked her way through the matches towards the finals, it looked likely she would clash with Jutanugarn when she got there.  But both she and Jutanugarn, the #2 ranked amateur in the world behind Ko, were upset in the semifinals.

Lydia during round 4 of this year’s US Women’s Open

Ko played in her second US Women’s Amateur three weeks ago.  She took the lead in the first round of stroke play, but Korean amateur superstar Hyo Joo Kim, who had already won two professional events herself in 2012, wound up beating Ko by a stroke for the stroke play medalist honors.  Ranked 1 and 2 thanks to those results, it was possible they would meet, for the first time ever, in the finals.  Alas, Kim lost in the third round, so it was not to be.  But Ko ruthlessly worked her way through the match play opponents, reaching the semifinals, where Jutanugarn awaited.

It was a pity that the first ever match play clash between the two top ranked amateurs in the world would happen in the semis and not the finals, but it certainly lived up to its billing.  Jutanugarn is enormously long off the tee, and outdrove Ko most of the time.  But Ko’s short game was far superior, and time and again, she would give herself birdie chances or make easy par saves when she needed to.  Her refusal to make mistakes eventually wore the Thai star down, and Jutnaugarn hit a terrible approach on the 17th hole that wound up costing her the match.  Ko would have her chance to win the Amateur against American Jaye Marie Green.

Although Green was a game opponent, she was truly no match for Ko.  They were close in the morning 18 holes, but in the afternoon, Ko went on a four hole run that put her strongly in the lead.  Ko made a couple of mistakes after that to give Green a chance of an upset, including one lost hole caused when she tried to make a par putt with an awkward stance to avoid stepping on Green’s putting line.  But despite that gift, Green muffed her approach on 17, much like Jutanugarn had the day before.  Moments later, she conceded the hole, and Ko had her first US Women’s Amateur trophy.  She was the second youngest to ever win the title, arguably the most important in all of women’s amateur golf.

Lydia Ko wins the 2012 US Women’s Amateur

And so it was that Ko arrived in Vancouver in late August to play in the CN Canadian Women’s Open.  She certainly was on a high after her recent win, but few, including herself, would have called her a favorite to win.  For her part, Ko was hoping to first make the cut and then, if she did that, go for a top 15, which would have been her best LPGA finish to date.  She enlisted the aid of club member and accomplished golfer Brian Alexander as her caddie, and used his thorough knowledge of the course to learn about the ins and outs of the tricky greens and fairways.

On Thursday, Ko got out to a great start, shooting a 4 under par 68 to put herself just two shots out of the lead.  But most of the attention on day one was given to Ya Ni Tseng.  The #1 golfer in the world, Tseng had struggled mightily with her confidence over the past few months.  But when she shot a 6 under par 66 to take the lead on Thursday, it looked as though the world beater might be back in action, ready to contend and win tournaments again.  Sitting in second place was the current US Women’s Open champion, Na Yeon Choi.  With those two powerhouses ahead of her on the leaderboard, Ko was just a footnote in most reports of the day’s results.

Ko started day two with nine straight pars.  She was not setting the place on fire, but she was for the most part making routine pars, with just the occasional hole requiring her deft short game touch to rescue herself.  But on the back nine, Ko went to work, making four birdies to shoot her second straight 68.  With Tseng struggling and Choi stalling, Ko suddenly found herself tied for the lead with Chella Choi, who shot the round of the tournament that day, a nearly perfect 8 under par 64.  Up to this point, Ko had been largely ignored, but as she crept into the lead on Friday, word got around, and the buzz grew.  By the time she had finished her day, she was the talk of the tournament.

Lydia and her caddie Brian Alexander during round 2 of the Canadian Women’s Open

When she got to the course on Saturday, playing in the final group with Choi, suddenly everyone knew who she was.  Whereas on Friday she had maybe 40 people following her (this reporter being one of the gallery), on Saturday her gallery numbered in the thousands.  The Canadian fans had adopted the teenaged Kiwi with the Canadian caddie as their own, cheering her every move, and trying their best to will her to the victory.  But Saturday was her weakest day of the event.  Whether it was the newfound pressure or just a natural downturn in her play, Ko suddenly struggled with her putting, making several three putts, including on the final hole.  Yet she still played well enough to maintain her position at 8 under par, and with Choi going over par, Lydia ended the day in the lead all by herself.  She had survived her worst day and actually improved her position.  But danger still lurked.  Immediately behind her were two formidable opponents: former world #1 Jiyai Shin, and current world #2 Stacey Lewis.  Neither of these proud pros wanted to lose to a high school student.  And other great players like Chella Choi, Na Yeon Choi and Inbee Park were also close behind.  It looked like Ko was in for the fight of her life.

Lydia during round 3

On Sunday, her galleries had increased even more, and the air was electric with the possibility of history being made.  Through the first nine holes, the leaderboard was tight.  Ko was playing great, hitting fairway after fairway, giving herself decent birdies chances, and making few mistakes.  But she was not able to shake her pursuers, and found herself tied with Chella Choi after 9 holes, with several other top pros still very close behind.  At this point, it seemed likely that the pressure would finally get to the amateur, or that one of those great pros would blow past her and end her fairy tale run.  But at that moment, it was not the pros but the amateur Ko who stepped up.  Like all transcendent talents, she found a way to up her game to another gear that perhaps even she was not aware she had.  Suddenly, she was not only splitting every fairway, she was striping every approach to within a few feet of the hole.  And suddenly, she was making putt after putt.  She made four straight birdies from 10 to 13, narrowly missed a birdie on 14, and made another on 15.  Hole after hole, her lead increased, while Major winners and superstars struggled to keep pace.  By the 15th hole, her lead was 5, and only a complete collapse on her part would end her chances.  That didn’t happen.  Even after Inbee Park made a miraculous pitch in on 18 to move to 10 under, and Ko struggled a bit on that same hole moments later, Ko still made bogey to claim the three shot victory.  The crowd erupted in a standing ovation as Ko established the new benchmark for youngest to ever win on tour.  She was also the first New Zealander to claim an LPGA victory, and the first amateur to win on tour since 1969.  Park took home the $300,000 first place prize, as Ko, being an amateur, was not eligible to earn prize money.

Lydia’s glove from the Canadian Open win will go to the World Golf Hall of Fame!

After her win, Ko reiterated that she had no intention to turn pro.  But as the magnitude of what she has accomplished sinks in, one has to wonder how steadfastly she will stick to that plan.  She wants to stay amateur, finish high school and play golf in college.  But she is already better than any college golfer in the world; by the time she is 18, the difference ought to be so stark that it hardly seems worth her time to play in college tournaments.  Meanwhile, as she continues to play pro events (including the British Women’s Open, which she is slated to play in a few weeks), she will doubtless continue to leave money on the table.  She is not from a wealthy family, and there have been times when she has had to pick and choose which events to attend to save on travel expenses.  Does it really make sense for her to maintain amateur eligibility?  What will she gain by playing amateur events, where anything less than a win at this point would be considered a disappointment?  Turning pro would not force her to join a tour; she could just play in the occasional event via sponsor’s exemptions and whatnot, and use what she earns to finance college, travel and whatever else she fancies.  It will be interesting to see how things go over the next few months.

Lydia on a trip to Korea to visit relatives; she couldn’t hide from the press!

But in the meantime, Ko has the world at her feet.  She is an amazing young star who has lived up to the hype time after time, and in some cases far exceeded it.  Golf fans the world over eagerly wait to see what her next impressive accomplishment might be.

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