Following in the footsteps of Lydia Ko

By Michael Donaldson

Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees off on the 17th hole during the 2nd round of the New Zealand Women's Open at Clearwater Golf Club. Photo / Getty
Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees off on the 17th hole during the 2nd round of the New Zealand Women's Open at Clearwater Golf Club. Photo / Getty

The crowds, like seagulls to chips, swooped on Lydia Ko from the moment she stepped on the practice range at Clearwater Resort this afternoon.

At first there was one, with his smartphone out, then two, three, a dozen, 20 and suddenly there was a wall of phones and tablets pointed at the 18-year-old world No 1 as she patiently worked her way through her clubs, from chips, lobs and pitches to full driver swings which sent the ball to its long-range target like a guided missile.

As Ko practised, she used caddie Jason Hamilton, her father Gil Hong Ko, and a variety of sticks and hoops to check the technicalities of alignment, plane angle and hip rotation.

With her ears plugged with music and tees in her hair, Ko moved through her routine at a persistent but patient pace, breaking now and then to share a joke with Hamilton or check the time. If she was aware of the gathering audience documenting her routine, she didn't show it. Team Ko was in a cocoon of preparation.

By the time she got to the first hole for her 1.29pm tee off time, the throng had multiplied from dozens to hundreds, with fans snaking the length of each fairway.

Like the real estate market, it was all about location, location, location. Was it better to gather around the tee box and watch her stripe it down the middle, which she did like a Ko-bot, or was it preferable to race ahead to get a spot near the green to better study her meticulous putting routine and the birdies that flowed from her flatstick?

As Ko strode down the fairways with her arms swinging in her uniquely recognisable military march manner, the crowds flowed with her and gathered in a clump as she played her approach shots. Those close enough to eavesdrop were rewarded with rare insights into the player-caddie relationship - especially on the par-5 fifth when she was in the rough and right next to the ropes.

There, after a free drop away from a staked tree, fans were privy to Hamilton's instruction to "put it in the right bunker" from the shoddy lie and then watch in awe as Ko obliged with a searing five-wood to the sand.

"Did you hear the sound that made," said one. "I've never heard anything like it."

Others would jump a hole ahead, content to let the roar from the distant green give them the news they were looking for. With so much movement - and unaware chatter - the volunteer marshalls had their work cut out keeping everyone still while Ko's playing partners, Hannah Green and Emily Pedersen, played their shots or lined up putts after Ko had hit.

It was as if there was only one player out there - so much so it was reminiscent of Tiger Woods in his hey-day. And as was the case with Woods, there were cameras and phones to be silenced, with Hamilton dishing out the odd lingering stare in the direction of a mistimed click or a ringtone from an un-muted phone.

For Green, a 19-year-old amateur from Australia, the experience of playing alongside the world No 1 was a dream come true, including the huge galleries.

"When I saw the draw, I was totally excited," she said. "It was really inspiring to play with her and compare my game to hers.

"It was the biggest crowd I've played in front of and it didn't affect me as much as I thought it would. On the first tee, the nerves were definitely there but I tried really hard to take deep breaths and try to get the heart-rate down."

Ko's group was the only one on the course with its own leaderboard-carrying volunteer and, as Ko approached the fifth tee, an advance party of fans congregated around the advertising hoardings watching Ko's numbers change from -4 to -5.

"She must have birdied the fourth," said one man as Ko strode to the tee.

"Putts," Ko said - to him, to herself, to everyone, and no one - an affirmation, an exhortation and a short-hand confirmation of what everyone has understood about golf since Jack Nicklaus first said "drive for show, putt for dough".

Tomorrow the Ko show rolls on with an army of fans praying she gets the dough.

- NZ Herald

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