If Woods is king, then Ko's the crown princess
ELEVEN days after Tiger Woods won the Masters in his first full season on the PGA Tour, a 3.8kg girl was born in Seoul. Seventeen years later, Lydia Ko provided further evidence that the game's next transcendent player, the crown prince to Woods' king, may in fact be a princess.
On Sunday, in the last event of her first full season as a card-carrying member of the LPGA Tour, Ko recorded a four-under 68 in the Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club to secure the inaugural US$1 million (S$1.3 million) bonus awarded to the season's points leader and catapult herself into a three-person play-off, which she won with a par on the fourth extra hole to pocket the US$500,000 first-place prize. Her combined payday was the richest in the tour's history.
It was Ko's fifth victory in 42 LPGA starts and her third since making her professional debut in the United States at this event last year. Ko, also the youngest to win Rookie of the Year honours, held off Julieta Granada, who bowed out with a bogey on the second hole of sudden death, and Carlota Ciganda, who was seeking her first LPGA victory.
Nobody has won five professional golf tournaments before turning 18. Ko, whose family immigrated from South Korea to New Zealand, where her love of golf took root, is the youngest millionaire in LPGA history, with her Sunday payday effectively doubling her season earnings coming into this week.
Peerless in golf, she is the same age as Wayne Gretzky was when he signed a US$1.75 million contract with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association; the same age as Bob Feller when he made his major league pitching debut for the Cleveland Indians; and the same age as Kobe Bryant when he was drafted in the first round by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
No wonder Time magazine chose Ko as one of its 100 most influential people in April.
"To come up with three wins is an amazing year," she said.
But what's amazing is her ability to close out a tournament. Her swing and her putting stroke are as hypnotic as a swinging pocket watch. How consistent is she? The 18th hole was used for sudden death, and the second time Ko played it, her drive came to rest within inches of the divot from her first effort. She did not miss a fairway and missed just one green.
Ko's low-key game mirrors her personality. The most nervous she got all week was when she had to stand before a crowd in a hotel ballroom on Thursday night and deliver a speech.
"I think I should have had a shot of vodka before I came up here," she joked after reaching the microphone. She went on to make fun of herself by thanking all the caddies she has employed this year and ticking off the seven names, to much laughter.
But what sets Ko apart is that nothing about her is outwardly flashy. She came into this week ranked 19th in driving accuracy, 66th in driving distance, 28th in putting and seventh in greens in regulation. Her most eye-popping statistic is one that only true connoisseurs of the game tend to savour: She has never missed an LPGA cut as an amateur or as a pro.
Going into the week, Ko was one of three players who were assured the $1 million bonus, which counts as unofficial money in the season standings, with a victory. The other two were Stacy Lewis and Park Inbee.
Park, who finished tied for 24th at even-par 288, finished No. 1 in the world for the second consecutive year. Lewis, the world No. 2, tied for ninth at four under to become the first player since Betsy King in 1993 to claim the award trifecta of Player of the Year, the Vare trophy for the lowest scoring average (69.532) and the LPGA official money title with earnings of US$2,539,039.
For two years, the LPGA has been trumpeting the rivalry between Lewis and Park as the best in the game. But there is a budding rivalry that could blossom into a bountiful bouquet for the LPGA: Ko v Charley Hull, the 18-year-old wunderkind of the Ladies European Tour.
"I think it would be cool," Ko said. It was the most excited she sounded all week.