Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Golf: Queen of fairways wins tournaments and hearts

Auckland's teen sensation Lydia Ko is winning tournaments and hearts in the golf world, writes Phil Taylor

Ko was introduced to the game by an aunt and showed such promise that the family decided to see where it might lead. Photo / AP
Ko was introduced to the game by an aunt and showed such promise that the family decided to see where it might lead. Photo / AP

If Lydia Ko and Tiger Woods meet, it might be the American who seeks out the Kiwi's autograph because on a purely age-result comparison Ko is clearly ahead.

Woods won the US Amateur title at 18, Ko did it at 15; Woods turned pro aged 20 and notched two titles that season, Ko turned pro at 16 and won last week at her second start. And she had already won five professional events as an amateur, the first aged 14 in the NSW Open.

It's been a vintage year for young Kiwi female brilliance. Ko, singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O'Connor (aka Lorde) and Man-Booker-winning author Eleanor Catton have each earned world recognition.

Ko has proved that she can best any field and drive any fairway, and all before she's even got her driver's licence. Her other asset, the icing on the cake, is her personality; she is funny, grounded and, as her Twitter profile proclaims, a "proud Kiwi". While she is all business in competition, off the course she is endearingly girlish.

"Oh," she giggled in August after taking the lead on the way to defending her Canadian Open title, "if I win again you'll have to make me a citizen!"

She told the Herald this week there have been endorsement offers, and why not. It was announced yesterday that she had signed a management deal with IMG, who have some of the biggest stars in golf on their books.

"She's not some 6ft (1.82m) blonde bombshell or some crazy long-hitter off the tee," says coach Guy Wilson. "She's just a quiet girl who gets it done on the course and who can make anyone laugh their socks off."

Despite her incredible success, Wilson sees it as merely a start. "I believe she will be an absolute star. She will continue to wow people until they stop saying 'wow' because it is what they have come to expect of her."

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Even the method she chose to reveal she was turning professional has won fans. "Did you see the way she announced that she was turning pro," exclaimed ESPN.com senior golf analyst Michael Collins. "No, she did not hold a press conference, not even a tele conference. She put a YouTube video on Twitter. And who did she have as her pseudo caddie? Israel Dagg from the famous All Blacks. That's the way to do it. And watching that, I'm thinking either she has an amazing team in place around her or she kinda came up with that deal on her own! Do what you need to do little woman, because I am now a huge fan of yours."

Kiwi caddy Steve Williams, who has worked with Ray Floyd, Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and now carries the bag for Adam Scott, says Ko has caught the attention of players on the men's tours. "One of the most asked questions I've had this year on the tour is have I seen Lydia Ko play - why is she so good?"

The men didn't tend to follow the women's circuit closely but Williams says it seems that everyone is following Ko.

"She has done wonders for the women's game. She's proof that if you put a very good team and system in place at a young age anything is possible. As Ray Floyd used to say, the golf ball doesn't know how old you are."

Born Ko Bo-Gyung in Seoul, South Korea, Ko emigrated to Auckland with her family when she was 4. Neither parent played golf. Ko was introduced to the game by an aunt and showed such promise that the family decided to see where it might lead. Her mother,Tina Hyon, took her new school-entrant to the Pupuke Golf Club Pro Shop seeking lessons. Wilson, who happened to be working there having recently qualified as a coach recalls that she barely came up his waist. Neither mother nor daughter spoke English well. "What on earth am I taking on," he'd thought.

Getting minimum age restrictions on club memberships waived was one of many hurdles. Her play around the greens showed rare ability. Just how rare was revealed when Ko, aged 10, showed grit to battle through heat exhaustion to finish second in the world age-group championships in the US.

Tina Hyon, who has been at her daughter's side every step of the way, knew after a few months that Ko could make a career of the game. It wasn't her swing so much as her character, Hyon has told the Herald. Ko never cried as a baby. "I thought she was different. She was always too active, too happy."

Ko was 12 when she made the cut in a Ladies European Tour event, 14 when she became the world No 1 amateur, 15 when she became the youngest winner of the Canadian Open and at 16 became the first player since 1986 to defend that title.

The field she beat included all of the top 10-ranked players and 96 of the top 100. Typically understated in the post-match interview, she said she was "really happy with my 64 today". Asked whether it was her best competition round, she casually mentioned she'd shot 61 in Australia.

"The secret is there is no secret except hard work," former European circuit professional Rory Moor explained in 2011 when Ko and his protege, Cecilia Cho, filled the top-two rankings in world amateur golf. "The Korean kids just work harder. The Korean girls do have good body shape, they do have good strong legs but it's still about process.

"It's hitting balls 40 hours a week for four or five years."

Golf is four things: mental, physical, tactical and technical, said Moor. "Mental is most important. It's about toughness under pressure, about planning and desire and motivation. When I first met both those kids, I could see in their eyes that they have these things."

Wilson suggests Ko's special quality is detachment from pressure. Her zen-like calm - an American writer described Ko, with her young poker face and spectacles, as looking like "the kid who's way ahead of the teacher in algebra class" - he puts down to nature and nurture. In mock matches, coach against instructor, 6-year-old Ko took responsibility for poor shots and never made excuses.

"She's not too young not to know nerves but she is quite comfortable in that environment. She's had more success than disappointments and she has built on that. "

Wilson has seen his coaching business boom recently. "Everyone wants to be the next Lydia."

Q&A with Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko answered the Herald's questions after she returned home this week from her first win as a professional golfer.

How do you plan to spend the Christmas break? On Christmas day I will go to church with my family. We do that every year. I will try to have a break from golf for a few days and have some time out with my family, but I need to keep playing and practising over the next few weeks. January is going to be full on with the events down here and in Australia and I begin my LPGA Tour season in the Bahamas.

Looking back over this year, how would you describe it? This year has been great. There have been so many great memories from 2013 that I love. It was amazing to win the New Zealand Open at the start of the year. That was a really special moment for me and I am looking forward to defending my title there in 2014. To defend the Canadian Open was also a really amazing week. I didn't see that coming. It was probably the best win of my amateur career, right up there with my US Amateur win. And then turning professional and winning in only my second pro event was really cool. It was nice to finally get a pay cheque after winning four pro events.

Is there anything you have decided to buy with your first big cheque? Yeah, I bought a camera while I was in Taiwan. I am really excited about using it this year to record my first year as a professional.

How do you control your nerves at important moments? Well, I don't know really. I am fortunate to have a great team around me at the Institute of Golf and they have helped me so much with all parts of my game. Our sports psychologist there, David Neithe, has been really helpful for controlling my nerves and emotions on the golf course. I have also been lucky to get a lot of opportunities through New Zealand Golf and the people like Sir David Levene who supported me as an amateur. As an amateur I played all of the biggest tournaments around the world and was able to compete in majors. That experience has really helped me.

There are so many very talented golfers. How important is the mental aspect? It is really hard to win any golf tournament around the world because there are so many great players and I don't think most people appreciate that. David has been a great help to me and the mental side of my game I believe is one of my real strengths. He says to focus on the process hitting the shot, or making the putt rather than winning tournaments or anything like that.

Have companies come knocking wanting to sign you to promote their products? Well, I think there has been, yes. I don't really know too much about it. My mum and dad are managing that side of things [she has just signed with management company IMG]. It is important I focus on playing golf and leave that stuff to them.

Does turning pro mean your school days are over? I still want to study overseas and Stanford appeals because the facilities are so great. I still have one year of High School to complete and I will do that in 2014.

- NZ Herald

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