Lydia Ko just doing what she loves
NAPLES, Fla. -- Innocence can't last forever, but newly turned pro golfer Lydia Ko seems to be effortlessly hanging on to hers so far.
Then again, she's only 16, so that isn't so difficult just yet. But how about having a live news conference telecast on the Golf Channel? Or schmoozing with sponsors and pro-am partners? Or getting questions about what kind of legacy she wants to leave?
None of that is standard teenager stuff, but it's Ko's life now. It's an existence she seems comfortable in and -- strange as it may sound -- vaguely detached from. You get the sense she understands the hoopla but at the same time is thinking to herself, "Why all the fuss?"
The LPGA's season-ending event, the CME Group Titleholders, is Ko's debut as a professional, but she's already won four pro events -- two on the LPGA Tour. She has played in 15 LPGA events total and hasn't missed the cut in any. She's No. 5 in the world in the Rolex rankings for women's golf. She recently was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential teenagers in the world.
"I don't even know why I'm there, to be honest," Ko said of that honor, adding that 17-year-old singer Lorde, a fellow New Zealander, was a more obvious choice. "I don't know what I've really done. I've just done the things I love to do."
What she's done is establish a new standard for youthful success on an LPGA Tour that is somewhat accustomed to teen prodigies. American players such as Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson all turned pro while still teenagers. So did U.S. players Michelle Wie and Jessica Korda, who will be Ko's playing partners Thursday as this event gets underway.
They've all had various levels of achievement; Thompson is still a teen and has won twice on tour this year.
Ko, who was born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand, has stood out because she had even more success even younger. Her first pro title -- while still an amateur -- came when she was 14. So far, she has shown a level of consistency beyond what many average pros expect from themselves.
It made complete sense that when Ko petitioned commissioner Mike Whan for early entry onto the LPGA Tour, it wasn't a tough decision for him. Ko was granted membership for the 2014 season, and now a swirl of decisions awaits her and her family.
Which agency will manage her affairs? Which club manufacturer will she use? Which other sponsors will she sign with? If she establishes a base in the United States, where will it be? Will she buy or rent a home? With her coach since childhood, Guy Wilson, based in New Zealand, who will help coach her in the United States? How many events will she play next year?
Ko and her parents are still figuring all that out. And then there are simpler questions, but those don't necessarily have easy answers either.
"She asks if she can have a puppy," said her mother, Tina Hyon. "I said, 'Who would take care of it?'"
Hyon travels with her daughter, and they'll be doing even more traveling next year with Ko having full tour membership. Back home in New Zealand, Ko's father and older sister -- with whom Lydia is very close -- are both allergic to dogs.
So canine companionship may not be practical for Ko. But what of human friendships? How well can she make or maintain those, especially as she moves more and more into a world of adults?
"I don't think I've had a big birthday party in ages, or gone to one," Ko said. "Those Friday movie nights or normal teenage things, I kind of missed that [starting] many years ago.
"I haven't done a certain thing to be more mature, but I think just being around people older than me, it kind of happens automatically without me trying to do it."
In this way, Ko has a kinship with other young people who find themselves outside of their peer group, those in areas such as sports, acting or music. But golf, as an individual sport, can be even more isolating.
So how will Ko negotiate all this? That's an unknown. As good as she has played, there are no guarantees for long-term success.
We could be seeing in Ko someone who will be a regular winner on the LPGA Tour for years to come. Or we could be seeing a comet that is brightest now but fades into relative obscurity. Of course, her career could lie in the vast middle ground between those two.
World No. 1 Inbee Park, who won her first pro event as a teenager, is now 25 and can relate very well to what Ko is about to experience.
"It took a while for me to realize that there were many more great golfers than me, and I had to learn a lot more," Park said. "She's going to have her good times and bad times, but she has a long career in front of her. The most important thing is, if she doesn't give up, she's overall going to play well."
While it seemed a bit absurd, considering she is just getting started in pro golf, Ko was asked Wednesday how she hopes she will someday be remembered.
"Like Annika [Sorenstam] or Lorena [Ochoa] -- they did so much for the LPGA," Ko said. "They were such great players. That's [me] going out there and kind of being ambitious.
One of the big things is, I want to be known quite well to the spectators for being very nice and friendly. I obviously want to be the world’s best golfer in the future, but I think personality-wise is actually quite important to me.Lydia Ko
"One of the big things is, I want to be known quite well to the spectators for being very nice and friendly. I obviously want to be the world's best golfer in the future, but I think personality-wise is actually quite important to me."
Her mother said Ko has the decidedly uncommon-for-a-teen trait of being perpetually happy, a quality that Hyon said neither she nor her husband, Hong Ko, has.
Hyon said she's more a worrier and that Ko's father is more up-and-down in his temperament. Ko jokes with her dad about his roller-coaster moods, and the whole family thinks it's fortunate that she didn't seem to inherit any of that, because golf tends to reward even-keel personalities. Asked what she was most proud of about her daughter, Hyon said, "Her delight."
Can Ko maintain that, though, as she moves into the full-time life of a professional golfer? She resides in realms that don't necessarily intersect all that casually. She's a New Zealander -- you can hear the Kiwi in her accent and with her slang -- with Korean roots. She's a teen who will now have the financial rewards and obligations of an adult.
Ko won the Canadian Open for the second year in a row in August. Despite missing out on another large paycheck, she still wasn't sure about turning pro.
"I thought it was just another surprise week," Ko said. "I kind of wanted some more proof."
That came with her second-place finish to Suzann Pettersen at the season's fifth major, the Evian Championship in September. Then Ko, her parents and her support system in New Zealand knew she really had reached the end of the amateur road.
Now, there is no turning back. She's as ready as she can be.
"To me, golf is the No. 1 priority," Ko said. "I played it for the last 11 years, and I'll do that for many more years to come. I'm just trying my best now to be more grown-up and be a good professional."