Lydia Ko on the verge of historic win in Vancouver
COQUITLAM, B.C. - The kid stays in the picture.
And that, in fact, is a big understatement.
Lydia Ko, a New Zealander born in South Korea, is just 15, an amateur golfer, the best amateur female golfer in the world, sure, yet over a truly remarkable three days in the Vancouver suburbs, she leads a national golf championship, the CN Canadian Open, outplaying a star-studded field of LPGA Tour professionals.
If Ko's name is atop the leaderboard at the conclusion of play on Sunday, she will become the youngest player ever to win an LPGA tournament.
Ko started the blue-bird sunny Saturday tied for the lead at eight-under, with South Korea’s Chella Choi, ranked No. 45 in the world, who turned 22 on Saturday. Ko’s game was imperfect, particularly on the greens - she putted 35 times through an ever-par round of 72 - but it was good enough for the only amateur in the weekend field of 76 to fend off all comers.
The poor putting included a three-putt on 18, in front of a big crowd at the Vancouver Golf Club. Granted, the first putt was from some 70 feet, and Ko almost buried it, but then lipped out the three-footer for par, carding a bogey. Yet the steady young woman betrayed barely any emotion at all through the day when she had struggles during her round, and along the way would trade a laugh or two with her playing partners, or tour officials. She had been at 10-under early on Saturday.
“You know, if I make a bogey, or three-putt or something, inside I’m on fire,” said Ko with a smile and a laugh after her round. “It’s not like you’re going to play any better by slamming your club or getting angry, anyway.”
So, come Sunday morning, the teenager will wake on the verge of history. The youngest player to ever win the Canadian Open was Michelle Wie, at 20, two years ago, and the last time an amateur won an LPGA Tour even was 1969, perhaps just coincidence on the day that Neil Armstrong died.
The pressure on Ko -- at least looking from the outside - will be fierce. Ko has a one-shot lead on four pros, including Choi, who played one-over on Saturday to drop a stroke. The much-greater threat will likely be Stacy Lewis, 27, the Tour's money list leader and world No. 2 from the Houston suburbs and herself once a star amateur. Lewis on Saturday delivered a six-under third round - an eagle, four birdies and no bogeys - to establish herself in a tie for second.
Ko will play in a threesome with Lewis and Jiyai Shin, teeing off at 9:40 a.m. PT. Lewis has won two tournaments this year, placed second three times, and has 10, top-10's of the 17 she has played.
Second place, actually, might not be a bad spot to finish, since Ko, and her amateur status, means she cannot collect the $300,000 that would go to the winner at the $2-million Canadian Open. The top prize, if Ko wins, will fall to the second-place finisher.
A key to Ko’s three rounds has been her consistency. She has made four out of every five fairways through the three days, including 15 of 15 on Friday, and 11 of 15 on Saturday. But on Saturday, even as she missed a few fairways, she started to really boom the ball off the tee box, an average driving distance of 287 yards, an astounding 33 yards farther than she was hitting on Friday.
Ko’s distance on Saturday is equal to what Michelle Wie - one of the biggest hitters in women’s golf - managed on Thursday (but ended up missing the cut by four shots on Friday.) Lewis averaged 272 off the box on Saturday. The LPGA’s biggest hitter this year is Canadian rookie Maude-Aimee Leblanc, who has an average drive of 282 yards in 2012.
“Wow,” said one middle-aged man after Ko launched yet another one on 13, “she just bombed that.”
The consistency extends through her game, save for the putting. Ko has hit 16 of 18 greens every single day and has never once been in a sand trap.
Ko is riding a wave of confidence, having just last week won the prestigious United States Amateur Championship. In January, Ko made her first mark on history as she - at age 14 - won a professional golf event, the New South Wales Open in Australia, the youngest person ever, male or female, to win a pro event.
In Australia her mother caddied, as Ko’s mother often does for her daughter. In Vancouver, however, Ko has an inside edge. His name is Brian Alexander, a local real estate developer who has been a member at the Vancouver Golf Club for the past decade. Alexander is 63, or as he joked, “Lydia times four.” It’s not often a caddy gets cheers from the crowd, either. As Ko and Alexander made their way to 16 from the 15th green, one club member in the gallery said, “Good job, Brian,” while a couple of his smiling friends ribbed him: “He’s more nervous than she is,” said one, and another, “And he’s exhausted,” with laughs all round.
But Alexander isn’t just a schlep. His best round at the course is a five-under 67. Still, he’s never seen anything like Ko live in person.
“To see the lines that Lydia takes off the tee, they scare me,” said Alexander after the round. “She cuts the trees so close some times, and she does it consistently. That kind of talent, I’ve never seen in all my years of playing golf.”
The greens, Alexander knows from a decade of experience, are tricky, even as the LPGA slowed them down for the tournament from their expressway-like speed earlier in the week during practice rounds. Alexander acknowledged Ko’s good luck to have the aid of a local’s knowledge when reading the hard-to-discern breaks.
“There are some unusual breaks, because the greens sometimes don’t lay exactly how they look like they’re laying,” he said. “They’ll be on a hillside and be like this” - motioning an angle with his hand - “but still break in unusual ways. It’s certainly an advantage to have some local knowledge.”
And as her putting worsens - 29 in the first round, 30 in the second, and the 35 in the third - Ko answered “back to work” when asked what she would do to relax ahead of Sunday.
“I’m definitely going to do some putting practice. Hopefully they’ll drop tomorrow.”
Most of all, win or lose, she has some remarkable calm for a young woman, underlining a boast on her website: “Ready for the world’s stage.”
Her aim in Vancouver had been to make the cut, and then maybe make the Top 15. She is now 18 holes from an amazing and historic victory.
“Tomorrow, I’m just going to try my best,” said Ko. “I’ve got to play my own game. I can’t concentrate on what the other players are doing. If they shoot 66 and I shoot 68 and I lose, I can’t control what they do. So I’m must going to play my game.”
She concedes some nerves, yes, but it has been, so far, a lot of fun.
“It’s quite nerve-wracking but I’m really here for experience and fun, and I’m having fun, at the moment. If I don’t win tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.”