COQUITLAM, B.C. - As she walked to the 13th tee box, as 15-year-old amateur Lydia Ko pulled away from a star-studded field of professional women golfers like a Ferrari firing away from Fords, her mother Tina handed her a Ziploc bag of cherry tomatoes.
Ko proceeded to crank yet another long and straight drive off the box and then, walking up 13, snacked, offered some to her playing partners, and waved to her math teacher and his wife, in the gallery, visiting from her home back in New Zealand. Ko, earlier in the round, popping some grapes, said to her caddy that she likes to eat during a round of golf, as an empty stomach, for her, can be prey to butterflies.
In what is the golf story of the year – and one of the great sporting victories in recent memory – the kid betrayed no nerves at all as she booked a fantastic, historic and resoundingly decisive victory in a national championship halfway around the world from her home in Auckland.
Coming into the final round of the CN Canadian Women’s Open tied for the lead at eight-under, Ko led the final group on Sunday at the Vancouver Golf Club, fought off all comers and pulled away when she reeled off four straight birdies to start the back nine to leave the world’s best women on the LGPA Tour behind.
After yet another birdie on 15 – the toughest hole on the golf course this week – the world’s best sensed it was over, and the 15-year-old had it. Ko’s playing partner Stacy Lewis, 27, the world No. 2, the Tour’s money list leader this year, and herself once a star amateur, offered words of encouragement as the two golfers walked to the box at 16.
“It got a bit nerve-wracking,” said Ko after she had hoisted the championship trophy, “but Stacy Lewis, after my birdie on 15, she said, ‘You know, you can do it.’ And it was really great to have another player that I look up to giving me that much support. So it was really awesome.”
Ko never wavered and in the end booked a five-under 67 to finish 13-under to win by three. She became the youngest woman in history to win a LPGA Tour event, and the first amateur to win a LPGA tournament since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And while Ko has everything – moxie, talent, and a big smile – to be an instant star in the making, she insists she will remain an amateur for at least several more years.
On Sunday afternoon, it was all about the moment: her playing partners dowsed her in a celebration of water – hey, the kid’s 15 – on the 18th green when her final putt fell to a cheering crowd of thousands. And her playing glove is already en route to the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida, where Ko has always wanted to visit.
“The pressure was on there at the end and she striped it all day,” Lewis said in an interview. “You know, I was just glad to be there to watch it. I just like that she went out there and won it. It wasn’t handed to her. She went out there and won it.”
As with all seeming fairly tales, Ko’s precocious talent – adjectives, frankly, feel inadequate – has been carefully nurtured by a small group of innovative professionals in her adopted home of New Zealand, after her family moved from golf-mad South Korea when she was six. She has been trained by an organization called the Institute of Golf in Auckland, which advertises it has “simply the best in golf coaching,” and boasts it is “home of the 21st century golfer.”
Ko – even as she is in Grade 11 – practises like golf is a full-time job, 40 hours a week, and has dedicated coaching, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, everything. In January, still 14, she became the youngest person, male or female, to win a pro golf tournament (a mark since bettered by Canadian Brooke Henderson). In February, she entered the final round of the pro women’s ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open tied for first, but faded. At the women’s U.S. Open last month, she was the low amateur, tied for 39th. Two weeks ago she won the United States Amateur Championship.
She didn’t come from nowhere, even if it looked like a Sunday miracle. Jo Stallard, the wife of Ko’s math teacher who cheered the teenager on, knows it better than most, having first played with Ko when the kid was a kid, just eight years old, in a 54-hole tournament. Stallard, a 12-handicap, barely beat her.
“I knew right from the start,” said Stallard on Sunday, as Ko practised ahead of her round, morning dew still on the grass. “What she’s talented at is she is consistent. [Coach Guy Wilson] has given her a swing that’s reproducible. Her swing is very simple. It’s just mechanical, because that’s what he wanted. If you look at some of the other players, they’re all over the show. You watch how stable her base is. He’s just done a wonderful job with her.”
Walking the golf course, Ko floats. She enters a zone, standing over the ball, and otherwise it’s a walk in the park. She jokes, she laughs. At times, sure, after a run of pars, or a bogey, she gets a bit stone-faced. But she seemed unshakable on Sunday, a day golf victories go to die (hello, Greg Norman).
As Ko headed for the 15th tee box – before she birdied the toughest hole on the course – an older man shoved a pen and hat at her for an autograph, very gauche. She thought nothing of it, signed, and proceeded onwards, munching on kimbap (a Korean sushi roll-like snack) after she popped her drive on 15.
“She’s hilarious,” said Stallard. “Someone asked me if she was quiet and reserved.” Stallard paused, lowered the intonation of her voice. “Hell, no!”
Unlike former prodigies, such as now 22-year-old Michelle Wie, there does not appear to be multimillion-dollar endorsements in the immediate offing. After Ko’s victory, her mom Tina, beside the 18th green, was asked whether her daughter’s world will radically change.
“I don’t think so,” said Tina Ko, laughing. “Everything will be the same when we get back to New Zealand.”
Of the $300,000 first prize in the $2-million CN Canadian Women’s Open that Ko cannot claim because she is an amateur, even that lost pile of cash money didn’t faze Tina Ko.
“She is too young to make money,” said the immensely and quietly proud mom.
Ko won over everyone on Sunday. Suzann Pettersen, the Norwegian who is No. 6 in the world, was somewhat bitter after Friday’s round when she said, “It feels like you are being beaten by a kid.” On Sunday, after Pettersen finished tied for 15th, 10 strokes back of Ko, the Norwegian tweeted: “Wow, 15 years old, Lydia Ko made the rest of us look like amateurs!!”
And no victory is one person alone. At the Vancouver Golf Club, Ko had an insider’s edge: her caddy was a decade-long club member, Brian Alexander, a 63-year-old (“Lydia times four,” he quipped) real estate developer who has himself carded a best score of five-under 67, and knows the course’s tricky greens well. Ko’s putting on Sunday was key to the win, after she struggled with the putter on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
But Alexander – whose youngest child is a teenage girl Ko’s age – has never seen his club course played the way Ko played it.
“To see the lines that Lydia takes off the tee, they scare me,” said Alexander. “She cuts the trees so close some times, and she does it consistently. That kind of talent, I’ve never seen it in all my years playing golf.”
Ko, pressed by reporters about her future, about the lure of pro riches, calmly said, no, keep calm, carry on. The near future does, in fact, include the British Open next month – as an amateur.
“I don’t think any of my plans will change,” she said. “I mean, this is a great win, but I don’t think this will affect me changing [my plans for] my career.”