Golf: Ko skipping to her own tune

By Daniel Richardson

When Lydia Ko was a young girl, she was known to skip rather than walk and it's with that carefree nature that she doesn't seem to feel pressure on the golf course. Photo / Getty Images.
When Lydia Ko was a young girl, she was known to skip rather than walk and it's with that carefree nature that she doesn't seem to feel pressure on the golf course. Photo / Getty Images.

When Lydia Ko was a young girl, she was known to skip rather than walk and it's with that carefree nature that she doesn't seem to feel pressure on the golf course.

The 15-year-old is as close to a golfing phenomenon as the superlative suggests and her achievements at such a young age are vast.

She is the world's No 1-ranked amateur and became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour when she claimed the Canadian Women's Open in August.

She might not have won any money but she has earned plenty of admirers and terms like "prodigy'', "star'' and "outstanding'' are commonly thrown around to describe her.

Remarkably, however, and particularly for someone so young, Ko seems largely unaffected by the storm she has whipped up and she's in no hurry to turn professional.
Mental skills coach David Niethe has worked with Ko since she was 11 - as part of the Institute of Golf programme on the North Shore - and believes her ability to handle pressure is what sets her apart despite her tender years.

"That's without a doubt the key to her success is the fact that she actually feels more comfortable out there playing tournaments than she does perhaps talking in front of a group of people,'' Niethe says. "She feels very relaxed out there and I think the key to her success is that we've talked about the states that are required to play at a high level. We've worked hard on keeping it simple and it's simply fun and focus and we all see that with Lydia.

"She will have an intense focus on a shot at hand then she'll just have a whole lot of fun. She had a reputation for skipping around as a little girl and you'll see her constantly out there smiling and those states contribute to consistent performance. That's the key to her success. She's so bloody consistent.''

Ko doesn't have the stereotypical look of a golfer - or an athlete with killer instinct - as she flashes a cheeky grin that sits below her thick black-rimmed glasses, but she never appears to be flustered on the fairways.

Like any amateur, she fields regular questions about when she will turn professional because, for most, the lure of money would be too strong to resist. But the financial rewards are probably overblown by individuals who dream of earning the sort of money Ko could.

She doesn't want for much and, even if Ko turned professional tomorrow, rules dictate she wouldn't be eligible to join the LPGA Tour fulltime until she was 18.

Golfers such as Aree Song and Morgan Pressel have successfully petitioned the LPGA in the past to join the tour as 17-year-olds, and young players can gain limited starts or sponsor's exemptions.

New Zealand Golf contributes towards Ko's expenses and her trust account is managed by Phil Aickin. The account recieves donations from the likes of Sir David Levene to ensure she can play at various locations around the globe.

Her Canadian Open victory would have netted her US$300,000 (NZ $364,793) but she insists she doesn't think about the money and doesn't want to make the jump to the professional ranks too quickly. She also might not welcome the extra responsibilities that come with being a professional.

"The amateur status is quite big in the world,'' Ko says. "I guess it'll depend on my performance level as well so, with amateur status, you actually have time to practice.

"But when you're on tour you're playing in a tournament every single week so it's quite hard to go where you are based and keep practicing. It's quite a different lifestyle.''
Spare time isn't something Ko has a lot of.

In between golf lessons, tournaments and other commitments, she had two weeks this year to study for her year 11 exams at Pinehurst College and will take three classes next year as she looks to maintain her grades. She enjoys a rare game of mini putt with friends and tries to be a `normal' teenager.

"I do lots of Facebook,'' she laughs. "And I like to watch Korean dramas. In my spare time I kind of switch off and don't really think about golf.''

She hasn't mapped out her playing plans for next year but it will likely include a handful of LPGA tournaments, although a decision looms on whether she will defend her US women's amateur title or contest the British Open in August.

Both tournaments are within a couple of days of each other and have their own distinct appeal with the amateur tournament an opportunity for Ko to win back-to-back titles and the British Open will be played at St Andrews.

She is also mulling over attending Stanford University in the US after she finishes high school in two years, when she would be able to play as a professional.

You get the sense with Ko that she wants to prove she can foot it with the world's best on a regular basis before she turns professional.

Nobody is suggesting the Canadian Open victory was a fluke but Ko would like to show she can do it again and Michelle Wie stands as an example that success as a young prodigy doesn't naturally translate to success as a professional.

"I could have played extremely well in the Canadian Open week and you never know what's going to happen,'' Ko says. "So I think that's why golfers are interesting because there are so many ups and downs and obviously a person that's playing consistently well will be the No 1 golfer.''

There's no doubting her mental strength, but she might even learn a bit more about herself next year when she takes on studying psychology, which will replace history in her class schedule.

"One of the reasons I'm taking it is because I might take it and go to uni. It's something I'm seeing if I enjoy and, if I enjoy it, I'll probably do it. Obviously it's a really hard subject so I'll just have to see and it's a subject that can help with my golf as well. So it's quite a good subject for me as an athlete.''

When she finally decides to flick the switch and turn professional, the young girl might be skipping all the way to the bank, too.

- APNZ

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