High hopes for teen star
On and off the course with golfer Lydia KoMATT RICHENS
Because Lydia Ko is on the fast track to golfing superstardom it's easy to forget she's still a shy schoolgirl.
Ko is comfortably the youngest of the 14 Kiwis in the 144-strong New Zealand Women's Open field, but she's the only one likely to feature on Sunday afternoon at the Clearwater Golf Club.
It's easily the best women's field put together in New Zealand, yet Ko is the third highest ranked player at No 38 in the world.
She's a reluctant star, one who goes a shade of red when asked about the New Zealand Women's Open poster her face adorns.
On the golf course she's brilliant, there's no denying that.
At just 15, she's competes with the world's best both physically and mentally and the deserved hype around the talented teen shows no signs of popping in the near future. But off the course she's different.
Just yesterday she giggled like the teenager she is as she jumped on a plastic bag trying to pop it.
It was one of those ‘that's right, she's only 15' moments.
Her results and talent make it easy to forget.
While pros sat inside the member's lounge, putted on the practice green or hit balls on the range, Ko, mother Tina and coach Guy Wilson had a great laugh as Ko eventually chickened out of the bag-popping incident.
"There's too many people around," Ko giggled before her mother sorted out the innocent snaplock bag with a mighty bang.
There was more hilarity when she lost a chipping competition to a Christchurch junior later in the day and was forced to do the Gangnam Style dance as her penance.
So there's clearly a switch with Ko, one that when on allows her to be physically, and more surprisingly, mentally as strong as golfers more than twice her age and experience.
And when off, she's, well, a normal 15-year-old.
It was that version, the shy and nervous version, that spoke at a press conference at Clearwater yesterday ahead of tomorrow's opening round.
She giggled and blushed about the promotional material and its "Ready, Set, Ko" tagline.
"Yeah I've seen them, all in public," she said. "It's kinda cool, but kinda embarrassing too."
Her slight shoulders have more pressure heaped on them this week than ever before.
The No 1 amateur is the third highest ranked player of the 144 in Christchurch. With that comes a heap of expectation.
Tournament organisers Touhey Associates and New Zealand Golf have both been at pains to point out this is the strongest NZ Women's Open field put together, but Ko won last year's Canadian Open with a much stronger field.
But that wasn't at home, it wasn't littered with constant media requests and promotional appointments and there was no expectation.
"It's quite hard," she said of the extra pressure.
"I think I've just got to block it all out and play my own game."
She feared the extra attention could affect her game in the three-round tournament.
"I guess so. But when you want to become a world-class player, you have to get used to it. I'm not used to it yet because I go ‘Oh, not this again'.
"I can't play good every single time anyway."
While the top players at Clearwater all know who Ko is, what she's done and what she's likely to do in their sport, Ko sees herself differently.
She's still just an amateur visiting the big leagues, she says. "I just keep out of their way and just play my game."
Her game this week will likely have to be a clever one, one mixed with aggression and maturity.
When the wind blows at Clearwater - and it will - the course shows its teeth.
Ko finished 17th equal and leading amateur at last year's British Women's Open in horribly windy conditions and has spent plenty of time working on that aspect of her game.
"After the experience in the British Open, I noticed I needed to do some more practice," she said. "So I've done a little bit at home because at Gulf Harbour it blows a lot as well."
Should she get up this week and win, and conquer the expectation, Ko's preparation will likely be the key.
She's been in Christchurch since last Tuesday and played the course eight days in a row.
Why? Simple; this event means plenty to her. "It's a pretty important tournament to me because I'm a New Zealander and this is my Open," she said.
"I've played well in other countries' opens, but I've never performed as well as I wanted here."
She's played the last three tournaments, all at Pegasus, and finished tied for seventh, tied for fourth and tied for 17th.
"This is one of the tournaments where I really, really want to play well."
And should she win, there's likely to be a huge gallery watch every shot along the way.
- Fairfax Media