U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
For Ko, 18, Major Win the Next Logical Step July 8, 2015 | Lancaster, Pa. By Lisa D. Mickey

Lydia Ko, 18, has enjoyed the pressure that comes with being recognized as one of the top players in the world. (USGA/Hunter Martin)

With Jordan Spieth collecting two (and possibly three) major championships by age 21, and Lydia Ko winning seven LPGA tournaments by age 18, today’s young pros believe quick success is not only possible, but expected.  

Ko enters this week’s U.S. Women’s Open Championship primed to improve on her T-15 showing at Pinehurst last year. She already has eight top-10 finishes this season, including two victories, and she either won or finished second in three of her first four events.

But that red-hot streak cooled off in the year’s first two major championships, where she tied for 51st at the ANA Inspiration (formerly the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship) and missed the 36-hole cut at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in early June, the first time she failed to make it to the weekend in her professional career.

“Every tournament is different, week by week,” said the teen from New Zealand. “You can shoot 20 under par one week and then shoot even par the next. I have to forget about it and just be excited again.”

Ko, the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, is excited about this week’s chance of winning a second USGA title. She admits she learned a valuable lesson after her disappointing performance three weeks ago at the Women’s PGA Championship.

“I’ve got to think of [this week’s Women’s Open] as just another event with a great field,” she said. “I think that will keep me mentally more stable – no roller coasters.”

Ko Talks Women's Open

Despite the analogy, Ko has been a model of stability ever since she arrived on the LPGA Tour. She was named the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year in 2014, the youngest winner in the history of the award. She also became the youngest player to cross the $1 million and $2 million milestones in career earnings, both before her 18th birthday.

Through 13 tournaments this year, she is top-ranked on the LPGA for greens in regulation (78 percent) and rounds under par (41), and is ranked fifth in rounds in the 60s (21).

Ko also rebounded nicely after missing the cut at the KPMG with a tie for sixth, including a third-round 63, at the LPGA’s event in Arkansas two weeks ago.

But that kind of performance started even before Ko was a member of the LPGA Tour. She won the LPGA’s CN Canadian Women’s Open in 2012 and 2013 as an amateur and non-member of the tour. She wasn’t even old enough to drive while she was stealing the lunch money of seasoned pros.

“She loves what she does and she has a really good head on her shoulders,” said 2010 U.S. Women's Open champion Paula Creamer. “If she hits a bad shot, she moves on, and even when she gets in trouble, she’ll make a 30 footer to save par. That’s why she is continuously in contention.”

Ko moved into the top spot on the Rolex Rankings early this year, where she stayed for 19 weeks until Inbee Park took over No. 1 with her win at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

When asked if she was upset about moving down to No. 2, Ko’s reply was surprisingly candid.

“I had that [top] ranking for longer than I expected,” laughed Ko. “There was pressure coming along with it, but it was fun. The greatest memory for me was playing in my national open – the New Zealand Open – in front of the home crowd being ranked as the World No. 1 player.”

But while Ko downplays her rapid rise up the rankings, her peers know she is a force to be reckoned with, and likely will be for years to come.

“Obviously, she’s a very talented player,” said Inbee Park. “I just can’t believe how mature she is and how mature her game is. I didn’t play that well when I was her age.”

Park, however, was still in her teens when she figured out how to win the biggest title in women’s golf. She was 19 when she won the U.S. Women’s Open for the first time in 2008, and she was 24 when she won her second Open title in 2013.

Ko has admired Spieth’s meteoric rise from highly regarded amateur to professional juggernaut, and is one of the few people to know what it feels like.. She says that his success, and hers, has nothing to do with age.

“The cool thing about golf is that age is just a number,” Ko said. “On our tour, we’ve got 18-year-olds like me, but we also have players in their 30s, 40s and 50s. We’re not out there thinking about how old someone is or what ranking they are. We’re all players and at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do our best.”

Ko does say it’s “great not to be called a rookie anymore” and while she’s not resentful about losing the top ranking to Park, the young pro is pragmatic about her focus for the remainder of the season.

“It does motivate me to play better, to be a little bit more consistent,” she said. “But [if] I feel like I’m still playing good and Inbee is playing better, then I can’t do much about it.”

It’s an outlook that, much like her game, is well beyond her years.

Lisa Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.

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