Lydia Ko has total package
Earlier this year, Lydia Ko talked about her memory of the first time she played in a group that included one of her idols, Michelle Wie. Ko was starstruck, intimidated, afraid she'd do or say the wrong thing.
It was cute and yet ironic. Because, if anything, Wie and many others on the LPGA Tour probably should be a bit intimidated by Ko. The 16-year-old Ko still has that air of, "Wow, I'm really doing this, right?" off the course, while maintaining a rather freakish adult calm and talent while on it.
Now that she'll be playing golf for "real" money -- not theoretical paychecks that she couldn't accept as an amateur -- will Ko stay the same kind of likable wunderkind? At least while she is still a kid? Is it possible?
We're about to find out. The LPGA made a logical announcement Monday: that starting in 2014, Ko would be granted full membership to the tour by commissioner Mike Whan. Players who are younger than 18 have to petition the commissioner to get LPGA membership, even though they can turn pro essentially whenever they choose.
Ko previously had announced she would play her first event as a pro at the CME Group Titleholders season-ending event in Naples, Fla., Nov. 21-24. It was just a matter of waiting for Whan's decision regarding her tour status for 2014.
Considering she's already won two LPGA titles, is currently the No. 5-ranked women's player on the planet and has displayed stellar deportment in competition, Ko made this easy for Whan.
And the latter part does make a difference. When Wie was playing in pro events (usually on sponsor exemptions) in her early teens, she sometimes had issues with not being as conversant with the rules -- both written and unwritten -- as pros are expected to be. Most players were patient with that and cut her slack, but others didn't.
However, Ko has not seemed to have any such issues whenever she's teed it up with the pros. With her youthful face and spectacles, she looks like the kid who's way ahead of the teacher in algebra class. But it's Ko's humility and willingness to listen and learn that allows Whan to make this call without much, if any, trepidation.
Ko is not sure yet who will be her agent, how many tournaments she will play in 2014, or even what she'd most like to buy for herself when she gets her first check. She says she hasn't even thought about that.
“Someone will say, 'You're a pro now,' and I'll kind of go, ‘Am I?'" Ko said in a teleconference Monday.
Indeed, she is. Ko, a New Zealander born in South Korea, has been groomed for this, no doubt. But that's in large part because she has an aptitude for it. Ko took up golf at age 5, and pro Guy Wilson in New Zealand has been her teacher from the start.
In January 2012, when she was 14, Ko won a title on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf circuit. She celebrated her 15th birthday in April that year, and then in August became the youngest winner of an LPGA title at the CN Canadian Open.
She repeated as champion at the Canadian Open this year and also was runner-up to Norway's Suzann Pettersen at the LPGA's last major of the season, the Evian Championship, in September.
Through all this, Ko kept passing up big checks. Not to boil life/happiness down to dollars, but it became obvious that it was time for her to start accepting what she was earning.
Ko has proved that she's not a flash in the pan. She has as many LPGA wins (two) as Americans such as Wie, Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson have, the latter of whom petitioned twice for "early" membership on the tour, doing so successfully for the 2012 season after winning a tour title at age 16 in late 2011.
Thompson, who will turn 19 in February, just got her second LPGA win Oct. 13 in Malaysia. She's nearing the $1 million mark in earnings for this season, played for the U.S. Solheim Cup team in August and generally seems to have had little trouble adjusting to life as a professional athlete while still a teenager.
Like Ko, though, Thompson was groomed for this. She's from a golfing family, has a calm temperament, relates well to people and really understands that being on the LPGA Tour is about a lot more than just playing golf.
It's about making small talk during weekly pro-ams, chatting up sponsors, doing interviews and clinics, smiling for pictures and giving autographs (even after infuriating rounds), and dealing with the disorientation and even isolation that can come with a job involving so much nationwide and global travel.
Thompson seems to have had good parental guidance, and so far so does Ko. But even with the right support system in place, it still comes down to a young person operating in the dollars-and-sense reality that a lot of us don't face until we're older.
But does any specific age necessarily make you more prepared for that? As Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in "Outliers," success often has strong ties to when and where people were born, and what kinds of influences and opportunities they have around them -- as much as what natural abilities they might have.
Ko seems to have all the bases covered: talent, drive, ambition and the support system. But there are many factors that can impact what the next few years of her career may look like.
Golf is a sport of highs and lows even for the best players. For example, Taiwan's Yani Tseng had five major titles by age 22 and was ranked No. 1. Now 24, she's been on a victory slump that's nearing two years. She says it's "mental," but what all goes into droughts for talented players? Even they don't usually know for sure.
Also, Ko essentially has been playing with "house" money in all her pro events, because she knew she wasn't going to be receiving any of it. It's reasonable to wonder if new thoughts now may creep into her mind while she's over a putt: "Missing this will cost me several thousand dollars." Even if she's able to quickly build up a tidy bank account, the fact that there is a monetary value to every move made on the course is part of the burden of being a pro.
“When I was an amateur playing professional tournaments, one putt didn't mean that much for me going up and down score-wise," Ko said. “Now it has a dollar number behind it. I have to learn to not think about that and just enjoy myself and have fun with the experiences."
And then there's just life in general: It can get more complicated (it usually does) as you get older. However, some players have been successful at maintaining a kind of protracted adolescence, usually by having parents travel with them and manage many of their off-course issues. That's not meant to be critical of those who take this route; if it works for them, who's to judge?
Ko already has been through the fire of competition at the highest level of women's golf. But in the next few years, she'll balance that with more travel and more responsibilities as she settles into the semi-nomadic life of a touring golf pro. She'll need to further cultivate a peer group and friendships on and off the course, while developing more independence and navigating a career that seems likely to make her wealthy. There's a lot to think about for someone who won't be 17 until next spring.
So let's hope that Ko one day can look back fondly -- but not too wistfully -- on her overachieving amateur days. These past few years have been fun and exciting for her, with one achievement building on another. It gets more complicated now in the professional realm, but it means new opportunities, too.