Lydia Ko shows trend of young success in golf

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The real phenom in women’s golf might be Angela Stanford. She won the HSBC Women’s Champions event in Singapore toward the start of the season, making her the oldest player to win on the LPGA Tour all year.

She’s 34.

That’s bordering on ancient, considering the average age of winners on the LPGA Tour this year is 24.

While it is historic, it should no longer be all that shocking that 15-year-old amateur Lydia Ko could beat the very best in women’s golf. With a three-shot win at the Canadian Women’s Open, Ko became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour. Such a feat might be even more astounding except that the previous record by 16-year-old Lexi Thompson was set only 11 months ago. Thompson broke the record for a 72-hole LPGA event that had stood for a whopping six years.

So maybe 15 is the new 25.

“I won two state amateurs at 15. I thought that was pretty unbelievable,” Dottie Pepper said Tuesday. “That kid dusted me.”

Michelle Wie won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at 13 and contended on the back nine of three majors at 16. She became less compelling the older she became, however, especially when kids her age achieved more (Morgan Pressel won a major at 18).

The celebration of Ko should be more about her golf than the fact she is too young to drive a car.

Think back to Tiger Woods and his watershed win at Augusta National in 1997. He is in the record book as the youngest Masters champion (21), but that week was more about the records he set on the golf course at 18-under 270 to win by 12 shots.

And perhaps she is worthy of comparisons to Woods.

Everyone has been looking for the next Woods, male or female, for the better part of a decade. What’s interesting about Ko, who was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6, is that she is winning at every level.

A year ago, she won the New Zealand Stroke Play Championship and the New Zealand Match Play Championship. She made history, albeit briefly, when she won the New South Wales Open in January at age 14 to become the youngest player to win on a professional tour (that record was eclipsed when Brooke Henderson won a Canadian Women’s Tour event this summer over 36 holes). She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur two weeks ago near Cleveland, and then took her spot in LPGA Tour history.

“This kid is an absolute rock star,” Pepper said. “Steve Williams, who caddies for Adam Scott, told me two years ago to watch out for this kid. Come on, now. She’s barely 13 years old. ‘You want me to watch out for who?’ And sure enough, her name started rising as her stock rose. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.”

Williams doesn’t know much about her game, except for what he reads in the papers and the margin by which Ko was winning. Most impressive to him is how she dominates one level before moving to the next.

“She realistically could be the next Tiger Woods,” Williams said Tuesday. “She’s won everything at every stage. She’s really an incredible story.”

What’s next?

Her plan is to stay an amateur – she passed up the $300,000 prize – finish high school and go to college. She qualified for the season-ending Titleholders event in Florida on the LPGA Tour, though Ko sounded like she wouldn’t be making the trip.

“When I go back to New Zealand ... I actually have an external Cambridge exam, so I’m going to be really studying a lot and put golf at the back,” she said. “Yeah, I need to pass my exams and get good results for that.”

Judy Rankin, who won the Missouri State Amateur at 14, was in Vancouver for the Women’s Canadian Open as an analyst for the Golf Channel. What she saw was a fluid swing packed with ample power, a teenager leaning on a local caddie four times her age to read the tricky greens, someone enjoying golf.

She can’t help but wonder if Ko was inspired by what she saw on TV.

“We have really gotten deeply into the generations that have seen all the best players in the world any time they want to see them on television,” Rankin said. “And no one is a better imitator than a child. Everything is broke down, everything is in super slo-mo. When I was a little girl, I saw Patty Berg one time at a clinic when I was 12 years old. I don’t think I would have seen anybody else who was really good, a professional player.

“Imagine how much that has changed since the ‘50s.”

Rankin says there are more examples of teenage success in the women’s game because they physically mature earlier, though there are increasing examples of males making this kind of progress. Think back to June, when 14-year-old Andy Zhang became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Open, and 17-year-old Beau Hossler found himself atop the leaderboard at Olympic Club for a brief moment on Saturday.

Ryo Ishikawa won his first Japan Golf Tour event at 15. Matteo Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he turned 18.

Hossler, coming off his U.S. Open performance, failed to win the Junior World Championship that featured neither Webb Simpson nor Graeme McDowell, much less Woods. Ishikawa is still trying to bring his game to the biggest stage. Thompson hasn’t won on the LPGA Tour this year. Paula Creamer, who won her first event right before high school graduation, hasn’t won since her U.S. Women’s Open title at Oakmont two years ago.

Age no longer is a big deal. It’s what they do going forward, and how long they can sustain it, that determines greatness. Rory McIlroy comes to mind. He won his second major, both by eight shots, earlier this month at the PGA Championship. He’s only 23.

Ko won against the best competition in the world on the LPGA Tour. Her next test is at Royal Liverpool for the Women’s British Open that starts Sept. 13.

Can she win again? In a major?

“It wouldn’t be the biggest shock,” Rankin said. “This was no fluke.”


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