Barrington, R.I. – Golf’s next big thing, especially when it comes to the women’s side of the game, almost seems like a weekly headline these days.
Whether it’s Morgan Pressel winning a professional major at 19, Michelle Wie becoming the youngest player to win a USGA open amateur championship at 13 or Alexis Thompson qualifying for a U.S. Women’s Open at 12, the number of young phenoms bursting into the spotlight these days is like an endless tidal wave.
And they are coming from virtually all points of the globe.
The latest sensation appears to be a 14-year-old New Zealander named Lydia Ko. It’s likely that most followers of the game haven’t heard of or seen Ko in person or on television. For the past several years, this rising Kiwi star has enjoyed a meteoric rise in relative anonymity. Competing in an entirely different hemisphere and multiple time zones away Ko, who was born in Korea and moved to New Zealand eight years ago, has been producing eye-popping performances since she first competed in her country’s national amateur at the tender age of 9.
And this week, she has brought her talent and No. 1 ranking, according to the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking that is supported by The R&A and USGA, to the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club. This is only the third time she has competed on American soil, and the first two were at the same event, the Callaway Junior World in 2007 and 2009, where she was twice the runner-up to Mexico’s Marijosse Navarro in the 9-10 and 11-12 girls’ age division at two San Diego-area courses.
But after becoming the youngest winner of the New Zealand Stroke Play and New Zealand Amateur championships four months ago – she was 14 years, 2 days old to beat the previous mark held by Larissa Eruera of 14 years, 8 months – her coach, Guy Wilson, felt the time was right to bring his prized student to America.
Wilson, in fact, tried to petition the USGA to give Ko a special exemption into the championship based on her No. 1 ranking, which she achieved on her 14th birthday on April 24. Ko was denied as the USGA has adopted the men’s rankings for its amateur events but hasn’t incorporated the one-year-old women’s rankings into its exemption categories.
So on July 14, Ko, Wilson and her mother departed Auckland for a one-month U.S. odyssey that included a July 20 stop at Brae Burn Country Club outside of Boston for one of the final Women’s Amateur sectional qualifiers, where she was the medalist with a 71.
From there, Ko went to California to visit her dream school (Stanford) and play several high-profile layouts, including Cypress Point, where she posted a 1-over 73 from the tips that included a three-putt bogey on the final hole.
They then returned to New England for the big Women’s Amateur debut. Ko made a solid opening statement in the first round of stroke-play qualifying on Monday with a 1-under 70 on the 6,399-yard Rhode Island Country Club layout, hitting 16 of 18 greens and all but one fairway (the par-4 18th that came after the second of two weather delays).
"This is our initiation so to speak," said Wilson, a 12-year teaching pro who first started working with Ko eight years ago at Pupuke Golf Course. "We wanted her to rub shoulders with people and have the opportunity to be the youngest to win it."
If Ko does pull off the achievement this week, she would surpass Kimberly Kim’s record (14 years, 11 months, 21 days) by exactly eight months.
While it may sound farfetched, consider Ko, at 12, was the youngest competitor to make a cut in a Ladies European Tour event. Earlier this year, she three-putted the 72nd hole at the New South Wales Women's Open in Sydney, Australia, to lose by one stroke to Sweden’s Caroline Hedwall.
"I was really unlucky that I didn’t win it," said the mild-mannered Ko. "Still being second is not a bad result. It was a one-meter putt (3.3 feet). I just hit it too hard."
She also was the low amateur at the Australian and New Zealand Opens, placing 12th and fourth, respectively.
For Ko, it’s all part of the learning curve. She enjoys playing with the professionals and tries to absorb everything about their games, from practice habits to course management.
"They are all different," said Ko of the professionals. "Laura Davies … I have never seen anyone hit [a driver] without a tee. That’s unique and it’s her thing. It’s just awesome to see those guys."
While she hasn’t played with Australian star Karrie Webb or her idols, Wie and 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, Ko could be teeing it up in some LPGA Tour events in the near future. Wilson has contacts inside the professional game and is working on getting her a sponsor’s exemption into next year’s Kia Classic in California. She would also like to play the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. Wilson said Ko had an invitation to play this year’s Evian Masters in France, but had to turn it down because it conflicted with Women’s Amateur qualifying.
"She just needs to get out there and represent herself," said Wilson.
New Zealand is probably best known for its national rugby team, the All Blacks, who have been a dominant force in international competition. On the golf front, lefty Bob Charles won the 1963 British Open and more recent, Michael Campbell claimed the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Three years later, another Kiwi triumphed at the famed North Carolina golf resort when Danny Lee won the U.S. Amateur.
Will Ko, like Lee, a Korean-born-turned-New Zealander, follow in those footsteps?
From the first time Ko touched a club, she seemed a natural fit for the game. While most kids were on the playground or learning how to ride a bike, she was steadily lowering her handicap. At 7, she played off 12 from the forward tees. By 9, she was a scratch player breaking 80 and competing with elite players in the New Zealand Amateur. She started representing her region of New Zealand in national events at 11, and last fall she played for the Kiwis at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina. Ko posted rounds of 77-69-72-73 helping New Zealand share eighth place.
"It’s something she has got," said Wilson of Ko’s natural ability and work ethic to improve.
Added Ko of her first true international experience: "I didn’t play too well. I am learning … that I have to concentrate more. I know those things could make my game worse, but in a way, I need to do that."
Her big breakthrough came this year when she claimed New Zealand’s top two amateur titles in the same week. She won the Stroke Play title by 11 strokes over Women’s World Amateur teammate, 16-year-old Cecilia Cho, and then defeated Cho in the Amateur final match, 4 and 3, at Russley Golf Club. Cho is currently the No. 2-ranked female amateur in the world rankings.
Ko became the first female golfer from North Shore Golf Club in Auckland to win the New Zealand Amateur – Richard Lee had won the men’s title in 1992 and Sharon Ahn claimed the Stroke Play Championship in 2005. Ko had already won the Australian Stroke Play Championship prior to that competition.
Critics of the ranking system will say Ko hasn’t faced the same competition that she would playing events in the U.S or Europe, which is why Wilson decided the time was right to make the 18.5-hour flight to Boston for Women’s Amateur qualifying.
Ko certainly isn’t walking the grounds of Rhode Island C.C. like the game’s top-ranked player. She knows it will be her performance that ultimately dictates her place among the world’s elite amateurs.
"It doesn’t really matter," she said. "And I really shouldn’t show off that I am No. 1."
And while a trip of this magnitude wasn’t cheap – Wilson estimates it will ultimately cost $25,000 with some funding from New Zealand Golf – the decision to come was a must for Ko’s development.
"The reality of this is it needs to be done for a player like this," said Wilson. "You can’t play anywhere else and get seen like this."
When the championship ends – and Ko hopes it will be with the U.S. Women’s Amateur Trophy in tow on Sunday – she will return to New Zealand and resume school. Because of a national holiday, Ko only missed a week of classes during her American vacation. Ko’s current plan is to complete high school and come to college in the U.S., preferably Stanford. The idea of playing in a top women’s program and going to a highly esteemed academic institution appeals to Ko.
Wilson can’t predict what will happen three years from now.
Right now, he knows he has an extremely gifted player.
Or possibly, the next big thing in the women’s game.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. For questions or comments, e-mail him at email@example.com.