She was reminded in the airport by a question she has heard dozens of times. The 16-year-old from New Zealand was clearing customs when the agent asked her purpose for coming to the United States. She told him she was playing in a golf tournament.
“He says, ‘Are you a professional?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ So that was the biggest thing,” Ko said Wednesday. “I never said that before.”
When the agent inquired about her game, the teenager with maturity beyond her years mentioned that she was No. 5 in the women’s world ranking.
Clearly, this is no ordinary pro debut.
Not since Michelle Wie played her first LPGA Tour event as a pro – in 2005, just two days after she turned 16 – has there been so much buzz about a newcomer. But their age and South Korean heritage are about all they have in common.
Wie already had signed lucrative endorsement deals with Nike and Sony. Ko doesn’t even have an agent, much less a corporate contract. She wore a cap promoting golf in New Zealand for a news conference that was carried live by Golf Channel.
The biggest difference is that Ko is already proven to be one of the top players in women’s golf. She won the Canadian Women’s Open against a strong field last year at 15, making her the youngest winner of an LPGA event. She defended her title this summer, and she was runner-up in an LPGA major at the Evian Championship. Ko also has two other professional wins in Australia and New Zealand.
“I don’t think Lydia has anything to prove,” Suzann Pettersen said. “She’s already proven she’s good enough to be out there on a regular basis.”
LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan waived the minimum age requirement of 18 for Ko. The last player given that waiver was Lexi Thompson, who now is 18 and won last week in Mexico for the second time this year.
Ko starts her pro career Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club with Wie (now 24) and 19-year-old Jessica Korda.
She also is playing a tournament in Taiwan to close out her year, and then she will play a full schedule mixed in with high school. She has one more year remaining, though her mother has not ruled out going to college while playing the tour, much as Wie did at Stanford.
For now, she is testing different equipment and trying to decide her best path with management and endorsements. She is in no rush. One other decision is where to live while playing the LPGA Tour. It’s a 16-hour commute from New Zealand.
And as luck would have it, she met one of her favorite players, Phil Mickelson, while in San Diego to test equipment.
“We’re looking Florida and Texas and a couple other places there’s no income tax,” Ko said. “Phil mentioned that one of the biggest mistakes was staying after college where the taxes are quite high. So I’m trying to stay in a low place. I don’t have any money yet.”
She has been getting by on $80 a month as her allowance. A win at the Titleholders is worth $700,000, the richest payoff in women’s golf. The purse is still $2 million, though the winner’s check has been bumped by $200,000 from last year.
Unlike everyone else at Tiburon, Ko prepared for the LPGA Tour’s final event by knocking out some final exams in English and photography.
“It’s helped me kind of get my mind off golf and get my mind off the whole pro thing,” she said. “That’s been a huge help. I couldn’t practice as much as I wanted to because of the studies, so I guess it’s just balance.”
That explains a lot about the teenager, who acts like one only at home.
There is an even temper about Ko that shows some staying power. After her family moved to New Zealand, she took up golf when she was 5 and has been on a fast track ever since. She was intent on staying amateur until her success made it difficult to turn down.
Even so, there is little evidence that Ko is running herself into the ground with a steady diet of only golf.
“When I’m off the golf course, I trying to think of everything apart from golf,” she said. “I try to stay calm in all situations. Being steady is one of the biggest things.”
One of those distractions is photography. She wants her first big purchase to be a good camera.
And she was still a little stressed out about that exam. Ko needs a certain grade to be able to take the next level in school. She saw a fellow student’s project before she left New Zealand and worried that hers wasn’t as good.
Ko’s project was unique, for sure. She had to use photos to tell a story. Ko selected pictures she took from her various stops around the world, whether it was in Queensland or Geneva, St. Andrews or Niagara Falls.
“My Photoshop skills are not so good,” she said with a laugh.
But what a story they tell – not just the cities, but the kind of golf she played in them. And her pro career is just getting started.