Lydia Ko: Explaining the inexplicable

Lydia Ko, the LPGA’s precious teenager, was in the media center at the exclusive Lorena Ochoa Invitational which has moved from Lorena’s beloved Guadalajara, Mexico, to Mexico City.

She sat as this year’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie Player of the Year, the youngest in LPGA history. She was already its youngest winner and its youngest millionaire. In addition to that she came in with a ridiculously gaudy record for a 17 year old: 2 wins, 2 seconds, 3 thirds and 6 other top-10s. In a world where it’s tough to make a living on the LPGA purses, she won $1,564,962.

But she’s also on the brink of more big things because of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship down in Naples, Florida, next week. Currently, she’s in third place in the points total behind Stacy Lewis and Inbee Park. Michelle Wie is right behind her in fourth. If Lydia can manage to win the Tour Championship, not only does she win the first place prize of $700,000, she could also win the $1 million bonus for the year-end points leader. 

It is a measure of her maturity that she is not particularly jacked up by that possibility:

“Yeah, there is still one more week and you know I’m not a mile off of the fourth place Michelle Wie. So you never know until the end of this week and the end of next week, but I guess to get that million dollars, that would be fantastic (laughter).”

And then she matter-of-factly expanded slightly on what it would mean to win it all:

“It will be an awesome thing to do, especially in my first year. But, you know, every body is playing well and they’re going to grind it and you know hopefully get that trophy and maybe the check also”

“So I think it will be fun and it’s a really cool system that is going to be happening this year, like you know the FedEx Cup for the men. So, you know I think it’s really good that we had the CME points starting this year and that makes all the players go out to every tournament and kind of think of winning every week.”

If you’ve been around Lydia any length of time, you know that having fun is the number one rule in her playbook for success even when winning Rookie of the Year popped into her mind throughout the year:

“It was [a desire], but you know it wasn’t really on my mind. My goal was just to have fun and score the best I can. And in the end that’s where all the awards come. I was thinking about it, but at the same time I really wasn’t. There are a lot of really good rookies out here and they’ve played really well. So, it’s not really all about me, but it’s about the other players too.”

But there is also the reality of life on the professional tours. You don’t get to go home on the weekends….for like eight months. It was her biggest challenge:

“Growing up in New Zealand, I haven’t really gone away from home or been away for more than a month or so. So to be away for eight months and not having time to go back was kind of the hardest time. I’m kind of ready to go home and see my friends now.”

But as successful as she has been, she has still managed to take away the lessons of being in the fire each week:

“Yeah, it’s been awesome. I’ve been learning a lot of things along the way and, you know, being in different situations that I hadn’t been in the last couple of years. So, it’s been a great experience. And, you know, I don’t think it could have been any better. There’s still two more tournaments. Obviously, it can get better from here but, you know I’ve really enjoyed it and I think this has been a successful rookie year for me.”

The endearing thing about Lydia is that she is so unassuming, especially for a teenager. She speaks in that unexcited, soft voice of hers that lilts her through conversations and seems to be filled with appreciation for the life she has carved out for herself. She seems to have remained unchanged through it all. She admits to being nervous on the inside, but peering from behind her oversized glasses, she always seems to look like a placid lake on a still day.

Which you would think would change just a little as one of her other accomplishments continues to mount: going 40 for 40, she hasn’t missed a cut in the three years she’s been playing on the Tour. She went 4 for 4 as an amateur in her first year…as a 15 year old; 12 for 12 in her second year as an amateur and 24 for 24 so far this year as a professional.

When I tried for an impromptu interview with her on the range at last year’s Founders Cup here in Phoenix, she was very polite, but mystified by my question about how she does it beyond her intention to just have fun. Can it really be that simple?

I told her that I’d check back with her next year.

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