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Ko Leader: Teen queen just wants to have ‘fun’ as World No. 1

Easy does it: Ko appears unaffected by becoming No. 1, remaining relaxed both on and off the course. Photo: AFP.

A relaxed LYDIA KO talks about rankings, majors, Michelle Wie and having ‘fun’ ahead of her second appearance at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore, which will mark the 17-year-old’s first event in Asia since becoming golf’s youngest World No. 1.

 

February 16, 2015: Two weeks ago, Lydia Ko Bo-kyung leapfrogged Park In-bee to become golf’s youngest-ever World No. 1 while still only 17, smashing the record set by a 21-year-old Tiger Woods. (Read: http://sport-asia.com/golf-new-look-lydia-ko-17-becomes-youngest-ever-world-no-1/)

 

Born and raised in Seoul before moving to New Zealand when she was five, Ko has a history of setting records. She remains the youngest player to win a professional Tour event, the youngest LPGA winner and the youngest Rolex Rookie of the Year, but Ko – who turns 18 on April 24 – still has records to break and targets to hit.

 

Starting with the ANA Inspiration in California in early April, Ko has five chances this year to become the youngest woman to win a major, a record held by Morgan Pressel, who won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship (now ANA Inspiration) at 18 years, 10 months, 9 days.

 

Before resuming her quest for a first major, Ko is playing this week’s Australian Open on the LPGA and then returns home for the New Zealand Open, a Ladies European Tour event.

 

Golf fans in Asia will then have their first chance to see Ko since becoming No. 1 when the laid-back phenom competes for a second year at the US$1.4 million HSBC Women’s Champions, which will be held at Singapore’s Sentosa Golf Club from March 2-5. (Read: http://sport-asia.com/golf-ko-heads-worlds-top-10-targeting-hsbc-womens-champions/)

 

Having finished 15th at the Serapong course last year, the quietly confident Ko admitted in the following interview that “I’ll be a little bit more used to the course” when she has a second crack at “a tournament I would love to win”.

 

Lydia Ko will compete in the eighth HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore in March, after finishing 15th in her debut last year. Photo: HSBC / Getty Images.

Ko will play in her second HSBC Women’s Champions in March, after finishing 15th last year. Photo: HSBC Getty Images.

What are your thoughts on reaching World No. 1 at the age of 17, beating the record set by Tiger Woods when he was 21?

It’s pretty awesome. It’s a huge honour to be in this position and I’m very proud to be here. It’s always been a goal to become World No. 1 and to be in that ranking right now is awesome.

 

But really, I’m going to go to every tournament and try to have a good result and not think about the rankings because if somebody else plays really good and wins a couple of tournaments, it’s really out of my hands. I’m just going to enjoy it and enjoy being here. It’s definitely fun.

 

Do you feel that being World No. 1 makes you the best player in the world?

When I played in the Bahamas, I really didn’t think about the rankings. I just went out there and tried to play my best and did what I really can do, so that’s what I was thinking about there. You know, it’s great to be top of the ranking, but when I’m on the course, that’s the last thing I’m thinking about.

 

What do you think makes the best player in the world?

I think it’s definitely consistency. When you see the past, No. 1 players have to be very consistent, have major wins and be top of the leaderboard a lot of the time, so I think consistency is really important.

 

You topped the rankings soon after you replaced your glasses with contact lenses. How do you like the change?

It’s definitely different. I had the habit of wearing my glasses and lifting them up, so it’s definitely different. It rained in the Bahamas on the first day and to not have to wipe the raindrops off my lens was pretty awesome. That was the first time I was so happy that it was raining. But I’m getting used to contacts and I wear my sunglasses to try and get the wind off so they won’t dry up. It’s cool and I like the change.

 

What are your thoughts on The R&A (The Royal and Ancient Golf Club) admitting its first honorary female members?

I think it’s great, because women’s golf is getting much bigger and it just shows that a lot of people are now more interested in the women’s game. It’s a great step for women’s golf, so I think it’s great that The R&A did that.

 

Do you see yourself as a figurehead for women’s sport at this time?

When I have kids and juniors come up to me and say, ‘You’re my idol’, it makes me feel very proud. That’s why I think hearing those things makes me feel like I need to become a better player, just for them, and give more opportunities for the girls that will lead the LPGA.

 

Easy does it: Ko appears unaffected by becoming No. 1, remaining focused on the course and relaxed off it. Photo: AFP.

Easy does it: Ko appears unaffected by becoming No. 1, remaining focused on the course and relaxed off it. Photo: AFP.

Having reached No. 1, have you set any other targets for yourself?

I’m just taking each tournament at a time. Some parts are really out of my hands and it’s hard enough trying to go out there and have to score, so to think about everything else that comes after it is just too much. I’m just going to have fun. I’ll take each tournament at a time and just prepare myself for that week.

 

Considering your rapid progress at such an early age, are you concerned that this might be happening a little too fast?

I’m trying to think about the present, trying to think about what’s happening right now. A lot of things have happened a lot quicker than I would have imagined or planned, but this is what it is and I’m really lucky to be in this position. So, no, I’m trying to not think about what’s going to come up next and just enjoy what’s happening right now. I try to not really think about the expectations. When you think about all those things, it just gets too much.

 

One of your idols was Michelle Wie, a former teen prodigy who was in the headlines for many years, then struggled with her game and is now back to being one of the world’s best. What can you draw from her experience?

She’s playing pretty awesome right now and won the US Open last year in Hawaii, but I think every player has a stage where they don’t play as good as they used to. She’s a great example. She didn’t have such great seasons, but she came back up and she’s a major champion. You just can’t kick out somebody just because they don’t have one good season.

 

I think she’s a great role model and that’s one of the reasons why I love her, because she did university, she graduated and she’s done a lot of things outside of just playing golf. I think she’s definitely a great role model for juniors and even players like me.

 

Ko was a clear winner of the LPGA's 2014 Rolex Rookie of the Year. Photo: AFP.

Ko was a runaway winner of the LPGA’s 2014 Rolex Rookie of the Year. Photo: AFP.

What would you expect to achieve for 2015 to be a successful year?

I had such a good rookie year last year, so it was more than I expected, more than I’d planned. The season was kind of a dream come true, especially finishing well and winning the Tour Championship.

 

To back it up with another great year is going to be tough, but I’ve set it off well with two top-10 finishes. I’m just going to try and work my way up and give myself a lot of opportunities so that at the end of the week, I’ll be holding a trophy.

 

How important is winning a major to you at this stage? If you win one this year, you’d break Morgan Pressel’s record as the youngest woman to win a major.

I would love to win a major. It has been my goal since I first started, but I never would have thought I would win a major at the age of 18 or whatever. Our first major is the ANA Inspiration (April 2-5) and I could break the youngest record there. Every week is really different and I’m going to prepare myself hard for that week, but I’m not going to think of it as anything more special, in case I over-push myself.

 

I’m really looking forward to ANA, but we’ve still got a couple of tournaments to prepare for before that and it’ll be like a work in progress. I’m definitely excited to play well in the majors and I’m just going to hopefully play consistently in the next couple weeks and just prepare myself for ANA.

 

After playing in Australia and New Zealand in the next two weeks, in early March you’ll come to Singapore to compete in the HSBC Women’s Champions at Sentosa Golf Club for the second time. How did you enjoy your debut last year?

HSBC Women’s Champions was fun. It was my second time going to Singapore, so I knew what the weather and all that would be like, but the hospitality and everything was great so I’m really looking forward to going back there in a couple of weeks.

 

The Serapong is a tough course and it can get a little breezy there. Because of the big greens, you really have to shoot for small targets, so I’ll be going out there trying to play good golf, as that’s all I can really do.

 

You finished 15th last year, so do you feel it’s an event you can win in the future?

I hope so. I would love to win the tournament. I felt like last year I did leave a couple of shots behind, so I do feel like I can win on that course. I just really had lots of fun there, so I think obviously for me – it being my second time playing there – I’ll be a little bit more used to the course next month.

 

The world’s best players are there and people that have played really well, especially in the last 12 months. Everybody is going to be super excited and everybody is going to really hope to have a trophy at the end of the week, but I’ve just got to play my own game. It’s definitely a tournament I would love to win.

 

Ko sits on a US$1 million stack of cash after winning CME Group Tour Championship last November. Photo: AFP.

Ko sits on a US$1 million after winning the CME Group Tour Championship last November. Photo: AFP.

How do you feel you’ve progressed under David Leadbetter and Sean Hogan, having had Guy Wilson as a coach in Auckland since you were five?

I first saw David and Sean after the 2013 Tour Championship, and then after that I worked out a bit and checked out my swing. There were a lot of opinions on me changing coaches, and that’s because I have a really good team with my on-coach guide and my team back in New Zealand and I’m very thankful for what they’ve done for me.

 

I’ve been learning a lot of things working with David and Sean. It’s been really fun and I’m really looking forward to what’s coming up next.

 

Which parts of your game are you most focused on improving?

I think putting is what I’ve always wanted to improve on. If you’re not having a great on-game day and if your putting works, you can still score well. That’s what happened to me when I wasn’t hitting the ball fantastic, but my putting was in and I was able to get some long putts and that gave me a couple of extra birdies. So you know, putting is always a work in progress.

 

Also, in the off season, we’ve been working on trying to bump up the percentage of greens in regulation. This is only the start of the year and this is something I’m going to work towards.

 

This year there’s a stellar cast of LPGA rookies. Who do you know well and who do you think will make a big impact?

I know a couple of rookies. Minjee Lee was a top-ranked amateur before she become pro so I got to play alongside with her when we were amateurs. Since Australia and New Zealand are so close, we played against each other a couple times. She’s definitely a very strong player.

 

Same for Ariya Jutanugarn. She played on the LET (Ladies European Tour) and also in a couple of tour events in the LPGA. She’s very powerful and at the same time, a great short-game player. She’s definitely going to be a hard one to beat.

 

Sei-young Kim recently won in the Bahamas and she’s had multiple wins on the KLPGA. Sei-young Kim, Ha-na Jang and others are all past winners on the KLPGA, so they’re going to be tough to beat, too. But you just really never know, the season is going to be long and you can’t really rule out anybody.

 

As well as majors, do you have your eyes on the Olympics next year?

The Olympics has really been one of my big all-time goals, so just hopefully being able to participate in the Olympics will be a dream come true, but to have a medal at the end of it would be a whole new level.

 

I think just being able to represent your country on a world stage, I think that’s the biggest part of it. It will definitely be a huge honour if I get to play in the Olympics. I think because it will be the first time next year, there will be a lot of interest in it and I’m really excited for it. I’ve never been to Brazil and that will be another cool thing, too.

Note: Teleconference interview organised courtesy of HSBC Women’s Champions

 

Lydia Ko (Born April 24, 1997) – Selected Milestones

29/01/2012:     Women’s NSW Open, Australia (ALPG) – at 14, youngest player to win a pro Tour event

26/08/2012:     CN Canadian Women’s Open (LPGA) – at 15, becomes youngest player to win an LPGA event

10/02/2013:     ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open (LET/ALPG) – third pro title as an amateur

25/08/2013:     CN Canadian Women’s Open (LPGA Tour) – retains title while still an amateur

23/10/2013:     Announces she’s turning pro in a video also featuring New Zealand rugby star Israel Dagg

08/12/2013:     Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters, Taiwan (KLPGA/TLPGA) – first title since turning pro

27/04/2014:     Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, USA (LPGA) – first LPGA win as a pro; third LPGA title

20/07/2014:     Marathon Classic, USA (LPGA) – second LPGA win as a pro; fourth LPGA title

12/11/2014:     Rolex Rookie of the Year (LPGA) – at 17, youngest winner

23/11/2014:     CME Group Tour Championship (LPGA) – third win as a pro on LPGA; fifth LPGA title

02/02/2015:     Becomes World No. 1 – golf’s youngest, beating record set by Tiger Woods (21)

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