OCALA, Fla. – Lydia Ko is walking, breathing history.
For a 17-year-old, she has already made an awful lot of it, and she’s threatening to make some more here after taking the third-round lead at the Coates Golf Championship.
Ko claimed the richest payday ever in women’s golf at the LPGA’s 2014 season finale back in November, winning the $1 million jackpot as the season-long CME points champion and the $500,000 first-place check as the CME Group Tour Championship winner. With a wild back nine Friday at Golden Ocala, Ko is now in position to win the LPGA’s 2015 season opener.
If Ko wins Saturday, she’ll vault to the top of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, becoming the youngest No. 1 in the history of men’s or women’s professional golf. Ko can also take the No. 1 ranking with a solo second-place finish, as long as current No. 1 Inbee Park finishes in a three-way tie for third or worse.
This is the same precocious Kiwi who at 15 became the youngest winner of an LPGA event.
As swiftly as Ko’s star is ascending in the women’s game, she never seems in a hurry. She refused to assume anything as the 54-hole leader.
“There are so many great players, one to four shots, you just never know what's going to happen,” she said. “I'm just going to concentrate on my game, just stay really positive, and if somebody else shoots a much better score than I do, I can't really do much about it. Just going to focus, and, hopefully, I'll go out and shoot a good score tomorrow.”
And about becoming the youngest No. 1 ever?
“Like I always say, the rankings come after the results of each tournament,” Ko said. “So, it would be great, and it would be a huge honor to be in that position, but we've still got another long 18 holes to go, and you just never know what's going to happen in those holes.”
With a 7-under-par 65 that included five consecutive birdies on the back nine, Ko overtook second-round leader Ha Na Jang, a South Korean star making her LPGA rookie debut.
At 14-under 202, Ko is a shot ahead of Jang (71), two ahead of Na Yeon Choi (66) and four ahead of Stacy Lewis (70).
Ko came out hot, but she really caught fire after opening her back nine with back-to-back bogeys. The normally cool, unflappable teen said she wasn’t feeling so cool after missing a couple 3-footers at the 10th and 11th holes to fall four behind Jang.
“I was kind of shocked,” Ko said. “It kind of got me fired up. I kind of jammed my putter in my bag, and I said, `OK, you’ve got to start working again.’”
Ko bounced back with five consecutive birdies. Her ball striking was brilliant. She missed just one fairway all day. She missed just two greens. She hit a hybrid to 3 feet at the 13th. She was knocking shots in tight throughout the back nine. She also had 11 one putts.
Though she’s in just her second year of LPGA membership after running away with Rookie of the Year honors last year, Ko already seems like a veteran. Fellow LPGA pros have been playing beside her for four years now.
“She’s 10 years younger than me, but actually she seems so much more mature,” Choi said. “Like she’s at least 25.”
Except when it’s time for dessert when they’re out for dinner.
“Then she’s 17, wanting chocolate and ice cream,” Choi said.
Choi has also noticed differences in Ko’s game already this year.
“She hits it farther,” Choi said. “She’s physically stronger."
Both Ko and Choi live in Orlando. In the offseason, Choi said she played a match with Ko at Isleworth.
“Of course, she beat me,” she said.
Ko is looking to beat everybody again Saturday to make more history.