Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Golf: Ko all go as young star shoots for top

Lydia Ko
Chris Rattue talks to New Zealand's teenage queen of the golf course

Her 2012 season was so spectacular that eventual golf superstardom and riches almost seem a formality. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Her 2012 season was so spectacular that eventual golf superstardom and riches almost seem a formality. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

As the rain belted down during a practice round at the British Amateur championships in Liverpool three months ago, Lydia Ko's coach Guy Wilson took stock.

"Do you realise most of these players here will never do what you did last week and win an LPGA event?" Wilson asked the 15-year-old golf sensation, referring to her remarkable triumph in the Canadian Open. Ko, nonplussed, shook her head and replied such matters hardly dawned on her.

In an email conversation with the Herald this week from Taiwan, where Ko is taking a break with her mother Bonsuk after playing the final event of her momentous year, the teenager elaborated.

"When I am away, I am focusing on my goals, not looking at what I have achieved," she says.

"I'm quite surprised seeing the results on paper. I remember at the North Harbour awards night being surprised when all my achievements were listed."

What feats they are, ones that make her winner of the New Zealand Herald sports achievement of the year. Her 2012 season was so spectacular that eventual golf superstardom and riches almost seem a formality.

Ko, at 14, became the youngest winner worldwide of a professional tournament at the New South Wales Open in late January. She topped that by becoming the youngest LPGA tournament champion at the Canadian Open in August when she defeated an elite field of the game's best professionals aged just 15.

Ko also became the first New Zealand woman to win the 112-year old US amateur championship, won the Australian amateur, and was the low scoring amateur at the US and British Opens. She took individual honours by a massive eight shots at October's world teams event in Turkey where New Zealand were fifth. Ko is the world's top ranked amateur, for a second year running.

While her professional landmarks grabbed most attention (the LPGA mark is unlikely to be beaten although a Canadian girl has already pipped her by a few days as the youngest professional tournament winner), Ko treasured the US amateur victory in Cleveland most.

"I wanted to win that so badly - to me it is the most important tournament," said Ko, who beat American Jaye Marie Green, 18, in the final.

"We prepared so hard for it and after getting a taste of the environment with my coach last year, I knew it was achievable. Nine rounds in seven days was a huge challenge. It was the first time I have been emotional at golf. I think that was due to my complete focus, and a bit of exhaustion."

This is a girl still feeling her way into an adult world. At this year's Australian Open, just a week after her historic NSW win, Ko shyly asked the leading American Morgan Pressel for an autograph. Pressel told Ko it should be the other way around.

Wilson says Ko is forever humble, and even gets embarrassed at beating adults. But incidents such as Pressel's autograph comment are helping Ko accept she belongs in the top flight.

The foundation of her game comes from eight hours practice a day at Gulf Harbour or the Institute of Golf in Albany, with dad Gilhong in constant attendance. Gilhong, a good tennis player, is Wilson's special assistant to Lydia and he plays the major role of keeping her focused during the long practice hours. The South Korea-born Ko has been coached by Wilson since she was 6.

Wilson says: "Gilhong has the Korean mindset, that hours and hours of practice will get the results, which has been proven. In female golf, Koreans are the world dominators.

"And it works well between us. He's got Lydia's best interests at heart and I can't see her every day. My Korean has got a little bit better but his English isn't improving. It's quite a fun environment for us though."

Ko, who nominally attends Pinehurst College in Albany, says: "I guess the main losses to my life are not being able to go out with friends, not being able to socialise and function like most girls my age.

"Instead, I've had to grow up quickly on the golf course."

Wilson says: "Realistically, she can't be a kid. She can't enjoy an outside life and fail at things - every time she goes to play golf, which dominates her life, she is in the media."

Results, results. School study doesn't work on tour because golf requirements dominate.

Before the Taiwan tournament, she downed clubs and virtually crammed the Year 11 curriculum into two weeks of study, with expectations of 80 per cent plus marks. The growing pains aren't only logistical and emotional.

Ko has grown about 10cm taller in two years, forcing constant alterations to her game and preparation plus the length, flex, loft, grip thickness and weight of her clubs. Added to this, her feel for the clubs change as the young body does, a critical factor to overcome in a sport of fine touch.

Until now, she had insufficient club speed to hit the three, four and five irons correctly so carried three hybrid clubs instead. This is not foolproof though, and required imaginative solutions in the 150 to 180m range because the lower ball trajectory makes it trickier to land on greens. The five iron is about to be added to her bag.

"It has been a battle at times," says Wilson, "but she adjusts like no one else I have seen."

Team Ko also includes another coach, Craig Dixon, strength and conditioning expert Jay Harrison, physiotherapist Brad Takai, and mental performance expert David Niethe. Ko's family - she has an older sister Sura - are the central force though.

The extent of Ko's success this year means she may take up invitations to more major tournaments such as the Evian Masters in France. Goals are being re-set, including more life orientated aspects. But the pressure and temptation to turn professional will only grow and IMG are favoured to take over her management.

Wilson says: "She won't get a full card until 18 anyway and if she turned pro now she would have to rely on sponsors' exemptions, which would only be good enough if she was playing well.

"I think Lydia needs to do a bit of living first which is why she still wants to go to a US college - she sees it as a chance to be self-sufficient. She has led a bit of a sheltered life.

"I noticed when we road-tripped in the States that she was oblivious to stuff like how much things cost," says Wilson.

One of Ko's major aims is to represent New Zealand at the Olympics.

Ko says: "My goals will continue to rise. I'm beginning to believe in what everyone has been saying."

- NZ Herald

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