Golfnutter: Tomorrow’s Tiger Woods – and she’s female

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It was early afternoon on Sunday 25 August and the leaders were preparing to tee off in the LPGA’s Canadian Women’s Open, at the Royal Mayfair Golf Club in Edmonton, Alberta.  In the last grouping was Caroline Hedwall (the Swede who had just gone 5-0 for Europe in the previous week’s Solheim Cup – the only golfer to ever do so), Suzanne Pettersen (the Norwegian who, if she had Anika Sorenstam’s brain, would already be ranked number one in the world instead of three, and, amazingly, a 16-yo amateur called Lydia Ko.

Hedwall was the overnight leader at 10-under, with Pettersen and Ko one shot back.  In the field were 23 of the 24 players that had represented the USA and Europe in the just completed Solheim Cup, as well as top-ranked Asians including Na Yeon Choi, Jiyai Shin, Yani Tseng, Ai Miyazato and current world number one, Inbee Park.

Ko became the youngest player ever to win a LPGA event, when she won this event last year, aged 15 years 4 months.  Now, 12 months on and at a different venue, she would be feeling the weight of expectations that hadn’t existed 12 months prior.  Many in the media, including those broadcasting the event, thought she would be thereabouts, but none predicted, let alone imagined, what was to come.

Some digression is warranted.

Lydia Ko was born in Seoul, South Korea in April 1997.  Some five years later, having immigrated to New Zealand, her mother took her into the pro shop at Pupuke Golf Club in Auckland.  There she met club professional Guy Wilson who agreed to teach the kid some basics.  Guy Wilson has been her coach ever since.

Ko’s promise shone through early with victories in various regional and national events at a young age.  By the time she was in her early teens, it was obvious to many an erudite eye that this lass was treading where few have gone before.

She was 14 when she won her first professional tournament; the Australian LPG sanctioned NSW Open, in January 2012.  Later that year she won the Women’s US Amateur, followed by the LPGA sanctioned Canadian Women’s Open in Vancouver.

Her next win in a professional event was the European Tour sanctioned NZ Women’s Open, in February this year.  By this stage Lydia’s following and popularity in NZ meant that the Women’s Open attracted greater crowds than the men’s equivalent – played at the same venue!

After she won the Canadian Open last year, her school – yes she’s still at school – held a special assembly for their star golfer.  It was no surprise therefore, when, come Monday morning Kiwi time, Lydia’s classmates were all huddled around TVs and live-streaming computers watching the last round of the Canadian Open live.

Students at the Pinehurst School in Albany, near Auckland, were meant to be sitting mock exams, which Lydia will also sit in October.  But everything at the school came pretty much to a standstill, according to teacher Vicki Wilson; “We were watching and listening to every shot, every putt that Lydia made.  It was incredible, just absolutely fabulous.  We are all so incredibly proud.”

Now to return to the first tee and Sunday’s leaders, as they prepared to commence the last round.  To say that the pressure on Lydia was a tad more than last year would be an understatement.  She had a significant portion of a small but sports-mad nation urging her on.

By the time the leaders reached the turn, Lydia had birdied five of the first nine holes to be 5-under for her round.  Her playing partners were struggling to keep up.  When it was all over she had shot a tournament-best of 64, finishing with a 4-round score of 15-under – five shots ahead of the field!

Her score was 11 better than one-time leader and world number one Inbee Park, eight better than world number three and playing partner Pettersen and six better than Solheim hero Hedwall.  The 16-yo amateur wasn’t just “thereabouts” against the world’s best, as the broadcasters had predicted, she literally blew them away.

She has now won four professional events from 22 starts.  As regards the LPGA, she has made 14 of 14 cuts with six top-10s and two wins.  But the statistic that is genuinely freakish is that she has now become the seventh ranked player in women’s golf.  She’s still at school remember – she only plays in selected tournaments here and there.

As much as she doesn’t like them, she had better prepare for another special assembly when she arrives back home.

To put what Ko has achieved in another perspective, imagine the hype that would have surrounded Michelle Wie if she had actually won anything as a teenager?

Lydia Ko – offering a glimpse into the future of women’s golf?

Lydia Ko of New Zealand poses with the champion’s trophy after winning the LPGA Canadian Women's Open golf tournament in Edmonton, Alberta, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Lydia Ko of New Zealand poses with the champion’s trophy after winning the LPGA Canadian Women’s Open golf tournament in Edmonton, Alberta, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013.

Happy golfing,

Golfnutter