Lydia Ko sets course for NZ title honours
Lydia Ko admits to feeling the pressure ahead of the New Zealand Women's Open but that is because winning her national championship at Clearwater on Sunday would mean so much to the world's top-ranked amateur golfer.
Ko is perhaps the only amateur in the world who can tee it up in a professional tournament and be considered a favourite, and this week will be no different for the seemingly unflappable 15-year-old.
Only two players in the field will take a higher ranking than Ko - ranked overall as the world No 38 - into the fifth edition of the women's open, again co-sanctioned between the European and Australian tours.
Throw her recent form into the mix - she was the runner-up defending her New South Wales Open title a fortnight ago - coming off a stellar 2012, and there are huge expectations.
Most media will be there to cover Ko's fortunes as much as the tournament itself, and many of the punters will only have eyes for one woman.
It is something the talented Aucklander understands.
"I do feel a bit of pressure," said Ko, who skipped the Australian Ladies Masters last weekend so she could arrive in Christchurch early and have a full week's preparation at the unfamiliar Clearwater course.
"But I have to block it out and concentrate on my game and my game only. The New Zealand Open is one of my most important tournaments and I'm always happy to play the open. [Winning it] would mean a lot."
Ko did not play at the inaugural event in 2009, at Clearwater, but finished tied for seventh in 2010 (aged 12), tied for fourth in 2011 (aged 13), and tied for 17th last year (aged 14) when she was in contention but faded in the final round. They were all brilliant performances for an amateur of her age.
However, in the past 12 months, her game has moved to new levels and this must be regarded as her best opportunity yet to become the first New Zealander to win the tournament.
Ko, however, is somewhat guarded.
The past three editions were hosted at Pegasus but the tournament returns to the tougher Clearwater layout this year.
She played the course while in town for the men's New Zealand Open last November.
"I have only played there once and it seems like a beautiful course and it also seemed quite challenging," Ko said.
"It seems to be less open [than Pegasus]. But I haven't played Clearwater many times so I'm not that sure of the course," she said.
Three of the four former champions - 2009 champion Gwladys Nocera (France), 2010 champion Laura Davies (England) and 2011 champion Kristie Smith (Australia) - will tee up this week.
However, the defending champion, Australian Lindsey Wright, is a late withdrawal with injury.
Ko, as an amateur, will not be able to claim any of the $315,000 purse. Still, that has not changed her focus, and there appears little chance she will turn professional in the 12 months.
Her golf-related focus is on maintaining her No 1 amateur status and working on her overall ranking through consistent performances in professional events.
She will play at least two of the five majors this year - the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the US Open.