Sixteen year old Lexi Thompson’s star was already rising when she and fourteen-year old New Zealander Lydia Ko were paired for the first round of the 2012 Australian Ladies Masters. Thompson was hot from wins at the Navistar LPGA Classic and the LET Dubai Ladies’ Masters. Ko, who was just emerging as an amateur star on the pro links, would became the youngest winner of a professional golf Tour event the following Sunday when she won the women’s New South Wales Open by four strokes. Their pairing foreshadowed the emergence of a teen cohort that within two years would be leading women’s golf into a tremendously exciting, international future. Following their round, Lexi Thompson said of Lydia Ko,
She’s not afraid of anything, you can tell.
Lexi Thompson on Lydia Ko
Perhaps equally telling is the source of the quote: AlJazeera, the premier Arab world media outlet, found the story of two teen girl golfers playing a round together in a pro event neither of them won worthy of attention. Thompson and Ko were playing on a world stage.
I Must Have Liked It
Lydia Ko’s journey to the upper reaches of the Rolex Rankings began with casual practice on a South Korean driving range using a 7-iron her Sydney-based aunt had given her, alongside other girls who were dreaming of Si Re Pak and golf glory.
I can’t really remember how I felt about [golf] back then. I must have liked it because when you’re that young if you don’t like something you just toss it in.
After the family migrated to New Zealand, Ko’s mother, Tina Hyon, already aware of her young daughter’s talent and potential and looking for a coach who could and would work with her, engineered a meeting with Guy Wilson. It was a match! For a decade Wilson coached and guided Ko through the usual junior golf competitions, molding her raw talent into disciplined, controlled athleticism. Much like Charley Hull’s dad, who caddied for Charley as she played her way through the amateur competitions, much like Lexi Thompson’s family, who make a point of supporting Thompson by joining the gallery of fans, Tina Hyon stayed at her daughter’s side and continues to manage the details of Ko’s career and travel with her to every event in which she plays. By 2009, when she was twelve, Guy Wilson’s work began to bear fruit. Twelve had been the magic age for both Lexi Thompson and Charley Hull and it was as well for Lydia Ko. Developmentally, she was right on time. She started playing in the big leagues of amateur golf. Although Ko lost that year in the finals of the New Zealand National Amateur Golf Championship to fellow Korean expatriate teenager Cecilia Cho, she had progressed to the finals. Within two years she would triumph over Cho. Her talent for the game was stunning and her career trajectory was clear.
In 2010 Ko, a budding teenager off the course, stepped onto the pro golf stage and finished the New Zealand Women’s Golf Championship in a 7th place tie, five shots behind winner and golf legend Laura Davies. She also helped lead New Zealand to a second place finish at the Sirikit Cup and finished 4th in the individual standings. Working her way up the women’s amateur rankings, in 2011 Ko played in three national match play championships, the US Women’s Amateur Open, the Ladies British Open Amateur, and the New Zealand Women’s Golf Championship. She was defeated in all three events, but she bettered her 2010 New Zealand performance by finishing fourth in that event. She also entered the LET Handa Australian Masters and finished in a twelfth place tie. Ko had risen to the top tier of the amateur rankings and was dipping her toe into pro competition. Ko hit the top of the world amateur rankings when she defeated her friend, Cecilia Cho, at the New Zealand Match Play Championship, and she became the first woman to hold both the Australian and New Zealand stroke play titles in the same year.
At the age of fourteen Lydia Ko was running out of amateur venues to conquer! Acknowledging her as the world’s leading woman amateur golfer, in 2011 the Royal & Ancient and the USGA awarded her the Mark H. McCormak medal. She would receive the award again in 2012 and 2013. By the time she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open for the second time, in 2013, Rolex Ranked No. 4 Lydia Ko was coyly fielding the inevitable question of when she would turn pro. She was playing in pro events, and she was leaving a lot of money on the table.
Finally, after she placed runner-up to Suzann Pettersen at the 2013 Evian Championship, she announced that she would turn pro in 2014. Lydia Ko was sixteen, Lexi Thompson’s age when she turned pro, Charley Hull’s age when she turned pro. But Lydia Ko’s status change, unlike Thompson’s or Hull’s, was much publicized and tightly choreographed.
The Commoditization of Lydia Ko
It began with the release of a slick, professionally produced UTube video Ko made with New Zealand rugby star Israel Dagg that brought to an end months of speculation. More dramatic, even eyebrow-raising events quickly followed. Ko’s mother advised The Golf Channel that Lydia Ko had petitioned LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, requesting a waiver of the LPGA rule requiring that members of the Tour be at least eighteen years old. Mike Whan quickly granted the waiver, opening the door to unrestricted professional competition to the newest teen who’d come knocking. The public drama and commoditization of Lydia Ko escalated. Ko signed a management and marketing contract with IMG Worldwide. Within weeks of signing on with IMG, she changed coaches as well, abandoning Guy Wilson, who had guided her through five pro titles, four of them won while she was still an amateur, and signing on with David Ledbetter Academy staff.
Wilson captured the full scope of their time together in a single sentence:
When I first met her the golf clubs were taller than she was and she didn’t know the first thing about a driver or a putter but now she has one of the most envied swings in the women’s golf world.
Ko mother shopped for housing in the Orlando area, conveniently near the David Ledbetter Academy; and Lydia Ko prepared for her professional debut at the 2013 CME Group Titleholders. And as 2013 rolled over into 2014 and she began her LPGA rookie year, Callaway and Lydia Ko signed a sponsorship agreement.
Ko’s Rookie Year
It’s almost too easy to forget that Lydia Ko is a sixteen-year old. Her public face is cool and detached. Her on-course emotional focus is rock-steady. Her technical game is predictably and consistently very high caliber. But Lydia Ko is an adolescent and her rookie year was launched with an extraordinary amount of fanfare — press releases, management contracts, sponsorship agreements, physical relocation to the epicenter of women’s pro golf — and significant changes to the routines that had given her life order. Would Ko the teenager be able to ride out the disruptions fueled by these changed circumstances and sustain her game? Ko finished the CME Group Titleholders, her first event after she turned pro, in a tie for twenty-first place, at four strokes under par, and took home her first paycheck for $16,063. Then she turned around, flew half way around the world to Taiwan and made her second pro start at the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters. She passed Inbee Park in the first round and So Yeon Ryu in the second round, and collected her first pro victory and her second paycheck, this time for $150,000.
She and Stacy Lewis were paired at the season-opening Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic in January. They strolled down the fairways side-by-side, chatting like old golf chums. After their round Lewis was asked what she thought about Ko’s game. Lewis laughed and told the interviewer, “It won’t be long before she’s beating all of us.” Ko’s started and made the cut in four events since the beginning of the 2014 season and finished in the top-five three times. She’s no longer leaving money on the table and she’s making a fine start on a likely Rookie of the Year award. Perhaps as the 2014 season unfolds, the controversy surrounding Ko’s transition from amateur to pro will be forgotten and eclipsed by her extraordinary athleticism. After Ko won the Swinging Skirts, Guy Wilson, her first coach, observed, “Lydia is someone that everyone will talk about for a long, long time . . .”