Willes: Teen golf prodigy Lydia Ko returns to her launchpad
LPGA: She won the Canadian Open as an unheralded 15-year-old amateur, now returns as a pro
Two summers ago, Lydia Ko arrived in Vancouver for the CN Canadian Women’s Open as a virtually unknown 15-year-old.
OK, she was the top-ranked amateur in the world, which was a pretty neat trick for someone who was still too young to drive a car. But at that point, all you could say about the young women from New Zealand by way of South Korea was that she had promise.
Then, in the space of four days, Ko introduced herself to the golf world and, since those four days at the Vancouver Golf Club, anonymity has been the least of Ko’s concerns.
Next summer she’ll return to the site of her electrifying triumph as a seasoned vet of 18, and a number of ghosts will be reawakened. But the best thing about Ko’s story isn’t that audacious beginning or what’s followed. No, that stuff is pretty cool, but the best part is we’re still in the first chapter and still trying to figure out where she’s going.
“She’s going to be the same,” her mother Tina answered when asked if winning the 2012 CN Open would change her daughter.
And that’s true, even if everything else around her seems to have changed.
Barring the unforeseen, Ko will be at the Vancouver club next August along with the best women golfers in the world in the newly branded Canadian Pacific Women’s Open. This will be the third time the event well be held in Lower Mainland in the last 12 years, and you can say this for the 2015 tournament: It has tough acts to follow.
In 2003, Hall of Famers Beth Daniel and Juli Inkster went to extra holes at Point Grey before Daniel prevailed in the last win of her storied career, Nine years later, however, Ko made the Daniel-Inkster duel seem pedestrian when she lit up the golf world with one of the most extraordinary performances in the game’s history.
That she won the tournament is only part of the story. At 15 years and four months, she became the youngest player to ever win an LPGA event and the first amateur in over 40 years. But it was the way she won it which made her four days at the Vancouver club so memorable.
Against a field that included every star in the women’s game, Ko shot back-to-back 68s to open the tournament before grabbing a one-stroke lead heading into the final round.
“Um, yeah. 15-year-olds don’t lead LPGA events all the time,” she said back then.
On Sunday, with 63-year-old Vancouver club member Brian Alexander on her bag, she then put on a clinic, recording four straight birdies to open the back nine before adding another on the 15th. When she finally allowed herself to look at the leaderboard on the 17th tee, she held a five-shot lead.
She would win by three shots.
“It was an honour just to watch her,” Stacy Lewis, now the world’s No. 1 who played with Ko in that last round, said at the time.
“Jiyai (Shin, the third member of the group) and I started laughing because every time you looked up the ball was going at the flag, then in the hole. She just had one of those days we all dream of. The fact that she’s 15 is unbelievable.”
Actually, what’s unbelievable is Ko would defend her title the next year with a stunning five-shot win at the Mayfair Club in Edmonton. A few months later, the LPGA waived its minimum age requirement of 18 and allowed Ko to turn pro.
“It’s not often the LPGA welcomes a rookie who’s already a back-to-back LPGA Tour champion,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan.
Ko is now ranked No. 3 in the world and she’s sixth on the LPGA money list. In April of this year, she won her first tournament as a pro, besting Lewis by one at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in San Francisco. She celebrated her 17th birthday that week. This time, unlike her two wins as an amateur, she got to keep the prize money.
With everything that’s now going on her career, there’s a tendency to say the 2015 Canadian Pacific Women’s Open will close a circle for Ko, that her return to the place where he journey started will mark an important sign post for the teenager.
Maybe there’s something to that. But it’s hard to think of anything closing with this young woman. The 2012 tournament was the beginning and everyone who witnessed it will remember her; so young, so guileless, so supremely talented.
But that road still stretches out before her and the horizon is limitless. Two years ago Ko showed us anything is possible and that’s still the case.
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