Getting to know Ko: the life of a teen prodigy

BEN STANLEY
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014
Lydi Ko
WINNER: At the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in San Francisco in April.
Daivd Leadbetter
Reuters
COACH: David Leadbetter says of Ko "She's a grinder".

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Her body is still. Her feet perfectly planted.

Her head down, eyes narrowed, as they have been countless times before, on a tiny white, dimpled ball.

Ko's caddy Mark Wallington is still, as is her playing partner and the man holding her golf bag. All three have their eyes trained on the horizon, towards the 18th hole.

The small public gallery who have been trailing Ko during the Kraft Nabisco Championship - the first of five major title tournaments in the 2014 Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) season - are silent.

Even the Californian desert wind, which has swept across Mission Hills Country Club from the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains all week, lets up for a moment.

The world is waiting for Lydia Ko to pull the trigger.

And she does: bringing the club up and then down in a perfect balance of power and fluidity, striking the ball with a force that belies her small size. She tenses her face, and lets a sharp word - Korean - escape her lips.

It's a superb shot. Not perfect, sure, but you'd be greedy to ask for much better.

Wallington breaks the silence. "That must have been Korean for 'great shot', huh?" he says. Ko's face opens up and warm laughter spills out from her. "Yeah," she says, giggling. "Great shot."

This is Lydia Ko, professional golfer: hottest property in the sport right now.

Two days earlier, on the Mission Hills practice greens, and Ko is in good form.

Majors in golf are like Grand Slam tournaments in tennis - the gleaming prize amid an exhausting season comprised
of 33 tournaments, four continents and 11 months.

To win a major means that, at that moment, you are the very best in women's golf.

For Ko, world No 3 as Sunday went to press, victory at any of the big five this season will make her the youngest winner of a major in golfing history, beating the record of 17-year-old Scot Young Tom Morris, who won the 1868 British Open.

She prods her agent, IMG's Michael Yim - who has been goading her about an in-joke to which the rest of us aren't privy - and giggles.

This is Lydia Ko, Kiwi teenager: joking in the Californian sunshine; Rihanna, Lorde, One Direction and Lady Gaga on her iPhone; a hankering for action movies.

"I'm not into that romantic stuff," she says.

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"I watch too much TV. That's probably why my eyes have gone so bad. Music-wise, it's got to be fun. I don't really like slow music - urgh."

It's been an intense last eight months for Ko, a spell that already ranks amongst the most important in New Zealand golfing history.

She won several top tournaments last year but was unable to collect the prize money as an amateur, and announced her decision to turn professional via a comical YouTube video, in which she plays a round of golf with All Black Israel Dagg. ("I texted Israel to say I got a new number. I hope his season is going good.")

Two months after that, she split with her Auckland coach Guy Wilson, the man who had mentored her game since she was just five years old, fresh onto Kiwi shores from the island of Jeju in South Korea.

It was a controversial call, causing the likes of famed Kiwi caddy Steve Williams to question her motives. But Ko has since won two tournaments as a pro and collected around NZ$718,000 in prize money.

Her rapid rise prompted Time magazine to name her one of the top 100 most influential people in the world.

She is the second youngest on the list, after Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, and one of just five athletes, including NBA superstar LeBron James and Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

Her citation was penned by Annika Sorenstam - regarded the greatest women's golfer of all time - who described the
Kiwi as leading golf's youth revolution.

But opinions on Ko's inclusion have been mixed: "To call Lydia Ko one of the most influential people is like calling Ronald McDonald one of the top hundred chefs," wrote top ESPN.com golf analyst Michael Collins.

His comment is one of almost absurd hyperbole, but the enormity of her placement on the list can feel hard to grasp.

She is a teenager, after all. How could she have wielded such influence already?

Maybe because Ko is also a composed young woman. At once a slightly goofy, affable 17-year-old, and a mature pro golfing prodigy.

Bad reactions after bad shots aren't Ko's style. She doesn't grimace in anger, nor does her posture slump.

She just watches the flight of the ball, puts her club back into her golf bag, and keeps on going.

She also plays the media game with adult skill: saying enough, staying composed, revealing a card or two, never showing her whole hand.

But make no mistake, Ko the 17-year-old is never far behind. She's poking her scorecard into the back pocket of her pants and popping monkey-head golf socks onto her drivers.

The rolling laughter on the golf course is hers, too, as common a sound as the applause she rouses.

"You've got to have fun or it gets too business-like. Too job-like. I don't want that," she says, of her first year on the LPGA as a professional.

"I mean, it is serious stuff sometimes, but you have to enjoy yourself. I thought there would be a big difference going from amateur to pro, but nothing is really different. Nothing has changed from the other players [either]. They've been really welcoming, which is good."

She misses home, "but you kind of forget about that a bit when travelling to all sorts of different places. I always want to see my friends - but I'm really enjoying myself out here as well."

Ask Ko's fellow LPGA competitors about Ko and you hear the same words time and time again: focused. Consistent. Great putter. Great driver.

"I look at her and think, 'Oh, she makes it look easy,'" says American Michelle Wie, No 12 in the world rankings in early May.

"She just has a really stable mindset when she's out there. Nothing fazes her."

"She's a threat any week," says second-ranked Stacy Lewis. "She's such a good putter. Very consistent. She seems to be getting a little bit more comfortable with the week-in, week-out grind on tour. I think she's going to get more comfortable as the year goes on, too."

Ask those same golfers who Ko is, and they'll tell you she's down to earth. Humble. Split-your-sides-laughout-loud hilarious. Christina Kim, who played the third round of the Kraft Nabisco with Ko, says she's "funny as hell".

The California tour veteran first met Ko at the Australian Open two years ago when the Kiwi asked for her signature, and the pair have remained tight since.

"She's got a really dry Kiwi sense of humour, and she's very quick-witted. A lot of people her age - things go right over their heads. Sure, she looks like a nerd, she's got those cute little glasses, but she is funny as hell.

"I thought she might be a little too young for some of the [dirty jokes on the course] - but she gets them. She's a world class player with the body and mind of an adult - but the spirit of someone who is young and fun-loving."

Ko's mother Tina is ever-present. She ghosts every round the teenager plays, attends every training session, and stays with Ko in apartments (never hotels) during tournament play.

Their dynamic is a quiet, gentle one. Tina whispers words of encouragement when needed, and rubs Ko's shoulders when her daughter looks tired.

"I'm enjoying it," she says. "It's important for me to be there for Lydia - she's still very young. We miss home a little bit, but this is what Lydia does now. It can be a lot of work for her by herself. We're staying in an apartment close by,
so I can cook for her and [make it less] stressful for her when she plays."

It was Tina who encouraged seven-year-old Ko to explore her talent, sparked by a trip two years prior to visit Ko's golf-playing aunt in Sydney: "I asked a professional to teach her how to hit the ball but he said he couldn't. He said Lydia was so young she may not understand what he was trying to teach her. I had to offer him some extra money to accept."

Father Hong, who attended Ko's recent tournament victory in San Francisco, splits his time between the family's Auckland home and a townhouse in Orlando, Florida they bought so Ko could be closer to her coaches' headquarters.

Ko's training regime is intense. She spends five and a half days a week working on her game in Florida: combining pure golf coaching, working on her swing, practice rounds and time in the gym.

Her coach, David Leadbetter, says that usually stretches out to six days: "She's a grinder."

Leadbetter is measured and unassuming. One of the world's best, he was hesitant to take Ko on board after she left Wilson ("You don't want to mess up the Mona Lisa") but is thrilled he did.

He'll wax lyrical about her sweet swing, but says he has also been really struck with Ko as an individual: "She's a delightful young woman. She gives you that impression she is very serious, you know, with the glasses and everything. But she's always cracking jokes."

"She's very popular with her peers," he adds. "You can wind her up a bit and she'll take it. She has that serious
side, but very light as well. It's a nice blend. You can't be all work and no play.

"She's got a great personality. You combine that with her golf skills, and she could go all the way in this game. I really mean that."

Ko eventually tied for 29th at the Kraft Nabisco.

This year, she will compete in four more majors, and head into each with vast expectations from back home - and the wider golfing public - that she will win one of them.

"It would be great to win [a major]," she says. "It's great to win any tournament... I'm just taking it hole by hole. If it happens, it happens."

What about her youth, all the vast expectations and the resulting pressure?

Ko sighs. She's been posed this question a thousand times before, and probably expects to hear it a thousand times more. Her answer is straight - boring, even - but it's honest: "There's no secret or special way of doing anything. I just do what I do. I just practice; you've got to be full-concentration when you do that. But at other times, you relax. You enjoy yourself as much as you can."

- Sunday Magazine

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