By Stuart Hall
Kohler, Wis. – Not until Lydia Ko reached Blackwolf Run’s beguiling first green on Thursday did reality finally set in.
“I was lining up my putt on the first hole and I could feel my hands shaking a lot, I was quite nervous,” she said of her experience on a hole that is coined “Quiver.”
Welcome to the 67th U.S. Women’s Open.
Ko, 15, of New Zealand, certainly showed no perceptible signs of knee-knocking in her debut appearance. One under par through 11 holes, Ko made three bogeys coming in to finish with a respectable 2-over 74.
“I guess this tournament is a bit different,” she said, allowing herself to crack a smile. “I set even par as my goal, so I’m a little disappointed.”
The round left the world’s No. 1-ranked female amateur tied with the world’s No. 1-ranked female professional, Yani Tseng.
“I hit a few close on the front nine, but was unable to execute them, and then had some really fine two-putts,” said Ko. “So it wasn’t too bad, and it wasn’t a bad start to the U.S. Open. So hopefully it will get better as the week goes on.”
Ko’s expectation of sticking around for the weekend is not a case of extreme hubris, but indicative of a confidence borne from high-level results.
En route to winning the 2011 Mark H. McCormick Medal, given to the No. 1-ranked male and female amateurs in the world, Ko had a memorable run. The medal secured her a place in this week’s field.
Ko won the Australian and New Zealand women’s amateur stroke-play championships to become the first female to hold both titles in the same year. She also won the New Zealand Women’s Amateur match-play championship. At the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club, she was co-medalist and reached the second round, losing to 2010 USA Curtis Cup member Stephanie Kono,
Then to start 2012, she won the Bing Lee/Samsung Women’s NSW Open to become the youngest person (age 14) to ever win a professional golf tour event.
“Yes, all of that has helped build my confidence,” she said. “I had some very good outcomes and I like the way I played.”
Apparently the vibe has continued as she has already won this year’s Australian Women’s Amateur Championship, becoming the first Kiwi in 23 years to win the title.
“I felt good coming over here,” said Ko, who arrived in Los Angeles on June 26 before working her way to Wisconsin. “I practiced hard back home, I was hitting it good and I’ve been hitting it good here this week.”
Aside from the case of first-hole jitters, Ko settled into a rhythmic flow of golf early. She hit every fairway and green in regulation and two-putted for par through the first 10 holes.
The round is better appreciated by the fact that this American experience is all relatively new to Ko.
“We don’t have many courses like this in New Zealand,” she said. “The rough looks about the same, but it’s rather sticky and a bit harder to play from.”
Ko, who will also play next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio, handles herself well beyond her 15 years, but she is still a girl. She admitted that the growing crowds over the past few days were a bit intimidating, as was the site of the putting green for some reason. She also gathered up the gumption to ask her idol, Michelle Wie, for an autograph on Tuesday.
Ko, though, did not engage Wie about Wie’s alma mater, Stanford University, which is where Ko would like to attend after three more years of schooling in New Zealand.
“She was very nice,” Ko said, “but we didn’t talk about school.”
The way Ko’s round went on Thursday, maybe she will have another chance as the week unfolds.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.