By Beth Ann Baldry, Golfweek
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – As the teppanyaki chef counted to three, Lydia Ko sat poised to catch part of Wednesday night’s dinner in her mouth. At the last second, an embarrassed Ko leaned back and caught the flying egg in her hands. It would be the only time all week she’d back down from a challenge.
Ko, the 15-year-old Kiwi whose golf game is as measured and precise as the chef with two slashing knives, was the guest of Harris Kim, owner of Ace Wasabi and six-time club champion at Clearwater Golf Club, site of the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open. Four days later, Ko returned to this delectable Japanese grill for a victory celebration, where she likely ordered a second round of apple juice.
“It’s always special to make history,” said Ko, after learning she was the first Kiwi to win the New Zealand Women’s Open. Ko collects national open trophies like some kids her age collect junior club championships. She became the youngest player to win on the LPGA when she triumphed at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open, the week after she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Earlier that year, she won a Ladies European Tour event at age 14.
She owns an unprecedented three professional victories by age 15. Ko insists that college is her next step, but longtime instructor Guy Wilson believes the lure of money might keep her from that dream. Wilson expects her to turn professional by age 17.
“Only because 18 is too far away,” Wilson said. “She could be playing the best golf of her life. Why would you wait three years?”
England’s Laura Davies echoed that sentiment in an early-week interview: “Strike while the iron is hot.”
Lydia’s mother, Tina Hyon, said her youngest daughter is considering the option. The fact that neither of Ko’s parents works, and that 2012 was funded largely by David Levene, an elderly businessman whose six-figure donation was funneled through a national program, leads one to conclude that money does indeed figure into this equation – whether young Lydia recognizes it or not.
The Ko camp isn’t yet up to speed on all things LPGA. The plans for this year recently were altered once the family understood the tour’s six-tournament exemption rule for nonmembers. Ko can make only six starts on the LPGA in 2013, plus the U.S. Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open. Odds are their plans for 2014 also will change as they begin to understand the LPGA’s qualifying system.
For Ko to play on the LPGA next year as a 17-year-old, she’d need to petition the tour to compete in LPGA Q-School at 16. (Ko turns 16 on April 24.) Of course, if she were to finish the equivalent of top 40 on the LPGA money list in official tournaments with cuts, Ko could ask commissioner Mike Whan to allow her to skip Q-School based on this result (Category 10 on the LPGA Priority List). She also could win another LPGA event and petition to join the tour, skipping Q-School, much like Lexi Thompson in 2011.
In other words, she has options, and it would be incredible to think that Whan could do anything other than green-light a Ko petition for 2014.
Michelle Wie and Thompson, both 6 feet or taller, overwhelmed us with their power and length as fresh-faced teens. Ko isn’t a short hitter. In fact, she is 20 yards longer and 2 inches taller than she was last summer.
What sets Ko apart from the giants of the game is an unmatched level of consistency. Ko’s drives follow an invisible string that keeps her nearly immune to hazards and gnarly rough. A wild shot for Ko is a pace or two off the fairway.
She attacks greens as if they are pin cushions, taking stabs at one flag after another until it seems impossible for her to miss. Ko considers putting to be the weakest part of her game, which is probably a fair assessment. It’s not that onlookers expect every putt she hits to fall. It’s that she hits so many approach shots so close, that four or five birdie putts are bound to find the bottom of the cup. And just like that, Ko has posted a tidy 68, as she did in the final round in Christchurch.
On the odd occasion when she does flub a chip shot, Ko quickly recovers. She does not allow bad shots to snowball.
“I often say golf is not a game of how many good shots you hit, but how few bad shots you hit,” said Bob Charles, New Zealand’s most celebrated lefty and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I think she’s that type of player.”