The private life of Lydia Ko
"I knew from the start she was different, that one day the world would know her name."
When Auckland golfer Jo Stallard was paired with an 8-year-old girl called Lydia Ko in a provincial tournament in 2006, Stallard, like many who have encountered Ko on the greens, knew what she was seeing.
But behind the predictions of greatness and the rewritten record books are a surprising string of serendipitous events that have helped turn a girl, who is not 16 for another month, into a most talented young athlete.
Prodigious talents are often said to be "born" and not made, instinctively drawn to their calling like high-strength magnets.
But not Lydia Ko. Her story began with some significant twists of fate.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, on April 24 1997, a chance gesture by her aunt while on holiday in Australia five years later would flick Ko's switch. And unlike top men's pro Rory McIlroy, who was always crazed on emulating his hero Tiger Woods, Ko was typically cool on her path, even when she stumbled across it.
"We went to Sydney to see some relatives. I was young, 5 years old. I didn't play golf," Ko told the Sunday Star-Times in Queenstown, where she's playing in the NZ PGA Pro-Am Championship.
"My aunt, Insook Hyon, played and she just gave me two golf clubs, a 7-iron and a putter. I took them back to Korea and was just messing around with them, nothing serious.
"I can't really remember how I felt about it back then. I must have liked it because when you're that young if you don't like something you just toss it in.
"But there wasn't a moment where I thought ‘OK, I'm going to take golf seriously'."
When Ko's mother, Tina Hyon (maiden names are traditionally retained in Korea), was told her daughter had a natural gift, and understandably wanted to nurture it, others weren't completely co-operative.
"Lydia started hitting golf balls and some people started saying she had talent. So we let her keep hitting more and more. She wasn't playing at that point, just trying to hit the ball properly," Hyon said.
"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."
Somewhere in Korea, there's a golf pro who will be glad he played his bit in Ko's most fundamental, formative years. But chances are, he'll be a bit sheepish about failing to spot one of the greatest young talents his sport has ever known.
Ko's memories of Korea are few and far between. She was 6 when her parents decided to emigrate - a year after the trip to Sydney.
And originally, Ko was destined for North America.
"We'd actually intended to move to Canada, but I then changed my mind," Hyon said. "I actually changed my mind to Australia, but [she laughs] we didn't like it there and looked at New Zealand."
Although somewhat accidental, it's a move Ko and are family are glad they made.
"We went back to Korea twice last year, most recently in December," Ko said. "It's not a big country size-wise, like New Zealand, but there are so many more people. Especially Seoul, it's so city-like. Living on the North Shore of Auckland is village life, it's very peaceful."
Hyon, who travels with her daughter to every tournament, is similarly at home in New Zealand.
"We're very lucky to see so many countries. But it's always nice to come back to New Zealand. You feel it, there's something good in the air we breathe here."
Ko's heritage has led some to question whether she considers herself to be Korean or Kiwi. The official line, from both Ko and Hyon, is emphatic.
"I'm proud to be a New Zealander and I get the feeling New Zealand is proud of me. It's kind of a nice circle which goes round," Ko smiles.
"At home we live like a normal Korean family. We eat Korean food and stuff like that and I like to watch Korean TV.
"But I feel the way I act is very Kiwi. I do feel like I have a Kiwi personality. I'm quite freestyle, rather than Korean-style."
Ironically, Hyon says the nationality issue was never even in question - until it was taken to their door.
"We never think about whether we are Korean or Kiwi. It's funny, the only time Lydia has had to think about it is when people started asking her," Hyon said. "Lydia lives in New Zealand and she has a New Zealand passport. Lydia plays golf for New Zealand."
Ko's impact on these shores is already highly significant.
No longer known solely within golfing circles, Ko has become a household name after winning three professional tournaments over the past 12 months, including both the Canadian and New Zealand Open. What's more, she's making people tune in to watch. And not only watch golf, but women's golf.
"The significance of that cannot be overstated, it's an absolutely incredible achievement," said Michael Glading, tournament director of the New Zealand PGA Championship which has welcomed Ko as a major drawcard this past week.
"Lydia is a remarkable young lady and a world-class asset, to not only New Zealand golf and women's golf, but sport in New Zealand in general."
It seems Ko has already triggered a chain reaction.
"Junior girl golfers are a rare breed," said Vicki Aitken, development manager for North Harbour Golf. "There's been a steady surge in the number of juniors in the Harbour region that's coincided with Lydia's success. There is momentum and I reckon that's from Lydia.
"She has stood out from her peers in the past two years and you've got to credit her maturity and growing up. Most teenagers are awkward in front of the media, now media love her.
"She is good at giving back and her parents are ensuring that."
So much has Ko's stock risen over the past 12 months that some said her Halberg Award for Young Sportsperson of the Year last month was insufficient and that she should have beaten Olympic champion Valerie Adams to Sportswoman of the Year. Some even argued Ko should have landed the supreme award ahead of Olympic gold medal rowers Hamish Bond and Eric Murray.
As context, the Halberg judges didn't even see fit to list Ko as a finalist for the youth award the year before, despite being the world's No 1 amateur. It seems the walls she's breaking down are not only in Kiwi homes, but in the establishment.
As much as her on-course success, a major part of Ko's popularity is proving to be her personality.
Although fans have grimaced at their television screens as high-pressure tournaments reach the sharp end, Ko walks the fairways looking like it's any old practice round - seemingly unflappable with commentators and professionals alike astonished at her remarkable ability to stay calm.
Ko is quickly charming the masses with what those closest to her say is a natural modesty and normality.
"She doesn't really talk about golf at all. I'm mostly the one who asks about her next tournament and how everything goes. We talk like normal teenagers and I sometimes forget she is the most respected golf amateur in the world," says Lydia Lee, Ko's Pinehurst School classmate and friend.
"She receives a lot of compliments and well-dones but she is a normal, humorous classmate that everyone loves. All the teachers love Lydia and she tries really hard to catch up on schoolwork she can't complete while away. I give her all my notes from class.
"Some people come up to get her autograph and take photos of her. I'm the one taking the photos and it's quite exciting."
Sherida Penman Walters, Pinehurst's executive principal, also acknowledged the attitude of a far-from-average 15-year-old.
"We are very proud of her achievements and graceful humility," she said.
"She remains well ahead of her years in schoolwork and already has her numeracy qualifications for university entrance, a tremendous effort given she has only just entered year 12 and with another year to go.
"As a Pinehurst student, she is an outstanding ambassador for our school and a role model to her peers and young aspiring sportswomen and sportsmen throughout the world."
Refreshingly, Ko is honest enough to admit her life is not that of a "normal 15-year-old". She hasn't physically been in school yet this year, working remotely when her schedule permits around tournaments and practice.
Ko also explained the traits she's becoming known for have actually been shaped by the reality of being a girl living much of her time in a career-woman's world.
"Because I'm playing in professional tournaments, with people who have played on tour longer than the years I have actually been alive, I can't really act my age. I don't think it would be the right thing to do, acting like a normal 15-year-old," she said. "You grow up quite quickly when you're playing tournaments beside these people.
"But when I'm off the course I really am like any other teenager, catching up on Facebook, watching stuff, music . . ."
One of the most obvious handles on her fame has been media - and a spike in the volume of requests she receives for interviews, both from New Zealand, and internationally.
"I think a year ago I would accept most of the media who asked for interviews," she said.
"Now I can't accept them all, I just can't or I'll end up doing media when you should be practising or doing schoolwork."
Fame is something Ko has had to adjust to quickly, and with everyone watching. No mean feat, in fact it's destroyed some before her. But seemingly like everything else in her life, Ko's taking it in her stride.
Her recent success has caused many to voice opinions on whether she should relinquish her amateur status. Ko admits the amount of opinion emanating from outside golfing circles has surprised her. But her perspective on it, for someone so young, is startling.
"It's kind of reached that stage, it happens. But I have no right to tell people ‘don't talk about my life'," she said.
"In a way it's quite good. It's my life and I live it everyday, but when you hear other opinions it makes you rethink and look at it from another point of view.
"Recently, lots of people have been saying, ‘Oh, you should just turn pro.' When so many people are talking about it, it makes you think, ‘What if?'
"I'd still like to go to college in the US. I could enrol and do it after I turn pro. I think that could be one of the best options."
Having earned, but not been able to collect due to her amateur status, the thick end of $500,000, it's easy to have sympathy for Ko, particularly when some of her professional peers have begun to cast their opinions.
"Last year when Lydia played professional events, a lot of professionals said she wasn't ready to turn pro. This year, a lot of them are saying she's ready," Hyon said.
But it seems that pivotal moment in Ko's career remains on the back burner.
"I just think she is too young to make such a big decision, she's maybe a couple of years away," Hyon said.
"Lydia will be the one to make the decision. My role, as a parent, is to make sure she makes the most informed decision she possibly can."
As for her aunt Insook Hyon, the person who set Ko on this journey, the two remain in regular contact, albeit most of the time through technology.
"We catch up on KakaoTalk, it's like an Asian version of Skype. On her status it says ‘I became famous because of Lydia Ko,"' Ko laughs.
"I guess she's proud, but I don't get to see her that often. In fact she sees me more playing golf on TV than anything else."
Sunday Star Times