Different Strokes: Lydia Ko keeps Tiger Woods in the shadows

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Talked about trio: Sergio Garcia, Lydia Ko and James Hahn.

There’s precocious, and then there is what Lydia Ko is doing right now in women’s golf.

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Last weekend the 17-year-old Ko (who turns 18 in April) won the ninth professional tournament of her career, opening out her lead as world No. 1 with victory at the Australian Open.

She is the youngest golfer ever to reach the top of the world rankings (beating Tiger Woods by four years in that respect) and, while she is yet to win a major, looks a solid bet to soon break the record for the youngest person to do that, too.

“It’s history. It’s never been done, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” another former world No. 1, the American Stacy Lewis, said recently of Ko’s rise. “It was just a matter of time. She’s playing some great golf right now and she’s confident.”

A New Zealander by way of South Korea, Ko notched her first professional win as a 14-year-old in 2012 (seriously, is that even allowed?!), winning her first LPGA Tour event a few months later – the youngest ever to do so, and the first amateur in 43 years. In October 2013 she turned professional, putting the LPGA in the bizarre situation of having to wave its own age limit rule to allow a two-time winner to become a full-time winner. 

Since then it has just been victory after victory and landmark after landmark, with Ko rising to world No. 1 at the start of this month (if you are reading this in February, that is) and, as her 18th birthday nears, she is apparently still only getting better and better.

“I personally think this is the start,” Ko said recently. “Golf is a sport that you can play for many years, and that’s my plan.

“This is only the start of my second year on Tour. I’ve been enjoying that and I’m really looking forward to what’s coming up next.”

Which, by the sound of it, might be the implementation of a lot more Ricky Bobby logic (“if you’re not first, you’re last”). 

She hits it straight as an arrow and seems to hole everything—noting already this season that the cup seems a bit “bigger” after some off-season work on her technique. Her win in Australia was also after coming from behind on the final day, something that is beginning to become a pattern and speaks to a preternatural calm under pressure.

“There’s a lot of things that I need to get better at,” Ko warned, somewhat ominously. “Normally the thing that I say is the best part of my game is my iron shots and then I looked at my stats from last year and I thought I could increase greens in regulation. So that’s what I worked on all off-season.”

The question is how long Ko can maintain such dominance (because that is what we are in the early stages of, for sure), and whether we are really witnessing the start of an almost unprecedented career.

It seems absurd to talk about a 17-year-old in terms of when she might retire, but even at this early stage that might ultimately be what defines her legacy. Women’s golf, in recent times at least, has seemed more susceptible to the domination of one (or two) players—Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa, Inbee Park, and now Ko—yet few have sustained either the hunger or the ability to maintain their dominance for longer then just a couple of seasons. 

That has invariably been even more the case of their potential challengers—Se-ri Pak, Karrie Webb and Michelle Wie shone extremely brightly for a short period, but have struggled to rediscover such form consistently over time—so it is not completely unfair to wonder whether Ko will fall foul of similar difficulties as she matures, gets used to winning, or discovers other interests. 

Right now, she sounds confident and determined to achieve her career goals over a sustained period, but then again optimism and naivety is both the gift and curse of youth.

“My plan is to retire when I’m 30 so I’m not just going to go to the beach and hang out for the rest of my life,” she joked, revealing she is soon to start an online psychology course. “There’s always a second career that comes along and I’m trying to build up towards it and, because I’m playing a sport, psychology links well with it.”

Such level-headed calmness about her future speaks well to her maturity and perspective, as does the fact she seems to have earned the respect of her peers despite almost instant success that could easily have put some noses out of joint.

“It doesn’t surprise me, as she’s very talented. She’s way wise beyond her years, but it will be interesting to see how she handles it,” Cristie Kerr, another veteran whose grasp on her best form has waxed and waned over the years.

“The hardest thing will be staying there, to maintain that level of play for a long period of time. Tiger did it forever, then Lorena [Ochoa]. Let’s see what happens.”

It will certainly be worth watching to find out. For now, Ko might be the only world No. 1 to be star-struck by receiving a tweet from the similarly precocious musican, Lorde.

Yet another first, for a lady quickly acquiring plenty of them.

Hahn the man

Regular readers of Different Strokes (Hi there, mum and dad, thanks for sticking with us) may have noticed that all members of the play-off at the recent Northern Trust Open—Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and James Hahn—are all either recent or soon-to-be fathers, offering more weight to the “nappy theory” we highlighted at the turn of the year.

Hahn was the eventual winner—congratulations to him, on both that and the impending birth—as the relative unknown (a so-so Gangnam Style impression at last year’s Phoenix Open was his previous biggest achievement on tour) catapulted himself to the next level.

James Hahn

He also highlighted  himself as one of the funniest guys in the game, judging by this wryly amusing post-tournament exchange with the media (via the official interview transcript):

 Q: There was so much talk about Gangnam style from Phoenix that people were expecting more. The subdued nature: How humbling is winning? That’s what it seemed like, anyway?

Humbling is awesome.  Winning is awesome.  Everyone wants me to do the dance.  I don’t think they even know my name. I think a couple of guys in the locker room are calling me John, like John Huh.  It’s amazing how many people don’t know me.  [Laughter] and I don’t think it’s that amazing, but it’s like, that’s kind of cool.  They have no idea who I am. I was walking up the stairs [on Sunday], and I played with Jim Furyk and Dustin Johnson and this little kid was like:  “Okay, good job Jim.  Good job, Dustin.  Good job…” he had nothing to say.  He was like, “who’s that guy?”  [Laughter]. Even when I was signing hats after the round, I asked some guy, I was like:  “Hey, like is there a playoff?  Like what’s going on.” 

He’s like:  “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and some other guy.” 
I was like, “Yeah?  Okay, cool, here’s your hat.”  [Laughter]
It’s definitely humbling.  I mean, I don’t expect anybody to know my game.  I just play golf for a living.

These guys are good

Sergio Garcia may have left on Sunday having pretty much thrown away the tournament (getting into a social media spat in the aftermath), reawakening all sorts of jibes about his nerves when under pressure, but it’s worth remembering the Spaniard can really play this game.

The great thing is that fortunately there’s a lot more good people in the world that guys like youth, when Garcia was so far off-line he found a bunker another hole. No matter, however, as he just cut a four-iron back to the fringe of the green after finding the small gap between trees and a camera tower.

This is just pretty much as good as golf gets.

“I would put it in my top three [shots of all-time],” as Garcia said (he would make par). “I’ve had some beauties I guess.”

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