NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko seems old for her age.
Sometimes, she appears to be 16 going on 30, but her mother knows better.
Tina, Ko’s mother, reminded us on the eve of her daughter’s debut as a professional at the CME Group Titleholders that Lydia really is still a teenager.
While Tina says Lydia isn’t very materialistic, she has been peppering her mother with a particular wish.
“She wants a puppy,” Tina said Wednesday after Ko’s news conference at Tiburon.
Before just about every tournament, Tina says, Lydia tries to strike a deal with her. If Lydia wins, she wants the puppy. Now, as a pro, she could buy it herself with the prize money.
“I say no,” Tina says.
Tina reminds Lydia that it wouldn’t be fair to the dog because they travel so much, and they’ll be traveling even more when Lydia begins her rookie season as a full LPGA member next year. And they can’t leave the dog with Lydia’s father, Hong, or older sister, Sura, back at their Auckland home in New Zealand.
“They have allergies to the hair,” Tina said.
It says something about Ko that with all the things she might have purchased with the $934,000 she left on the table as an amateur in 11 LPGA starts this year, she only pines for a puppy. As is Lydia’s nature, however, she doesn’t get upset about her mother’s veto.
“There isn’t a bad bone in Lydia’s body,” says Danielle Kang, who is Ko’s closest friend on the LPGA’s tour. “She’s just a very happy kind of person, very mature for her age. It shows in her golf. She plays so carefree, having fun. I kind of lost that when I turned pro.”
Ko might have left nearly a $1 million in LPGA winnings on the table this year, but she didn’t go without some spending money. Tina revealed that Lydia earned her allowance this past year playing golf.
“$5 a birdie,” Tina said.
Ko was asked if she knew what the first-place check is worth this week. It happens to be $700,000, the richest winner’s take in all of women’s golf.
“I wasn’t that interested,” Ko said. “Then my mom looked it up, and she said it was like, $500,000 last year and it’s gone even higher this year. I said, `Oh, so people who don’t come in first place will get less money this year.’”
While the tour kept this year’s CME Group Titleholders purse at $2 million, it substantially ratcheted up the winner’s share.
Naturally, with Ko playing as a pro for the first time, she’s being asked a lot about money this week. She won’t really know how playing for money affects her until she’s over a putt worth a lot of it.
“As a rookie next year, I think that will be the year I learn the most,” Ko said. “Being a professional and being an amateur is totally different, and next year I’ll have to learn a lot. This year, I think I only played one or two tournaments back to back, so that’s a whole different thing where I’ll need to play three or four in a row.
“Next year, I’ll need to perform well, but it’s more about learning and getting more experience.”
The Kos don’t seem in any rush to cash in on the financial opportunities there for Lydia. Though Ko visited Callaway last week to test equipment, there is no pending deal. She also visited TaylorMade and is interested in testing Fourteen, the Japanese clubs. The Kos also have yet to choose an agent or strike an endorsement deal.
“She’s still wearing amateur clothing,” Ko said.
In fact, Ko was wearing a New Zealand Institute of Golf cap in her news conference Wednesday at Tiburon. That’s where her coach, Guy Wilson, is based, and it’s where she practices a lot when she’s home.
There is a new logo on Ko’s bag, Puma, but that’s only because Puma replaced Srixon as the funding sponsor for New Zealand Golf, the national foundation that supported Ko’s amateur run.
Ko travels only with her mother, Tina, a former middle school English teacher in South Korea, where Lydia was born before the family moved to New Zealand 10 years ago. Lydia’s father, Hong, takes over the parental golf role when Lydia is home practicing.
“Her father is with her from morning till darkness at home,” Tina said.
Hong ran a small business, but Tina said it failed in recent years. The couple have devoted themselves to Lydia’s career, with New Zealand Golf’s help. The national foundation has funded the Kos' travel and golf needs.
Tina and Hong are married, but Tina kept her maiden name, Hyon. Lydia’s mother and father don’t play golf. Neither does Sura, 24, Lydia’s older sister. Sura studied architecture but works at the Auckland airport now.
“Lydia and Sura are very close,” Tina said. “Lydia calls Sura her angel.”
Lydia is also very close with her parents, two very different personalities. Tina says Hong’s intensity rises and falls from morning to night, something Lydia teases him about. Asked where Lydia’s unflappable disposition comes from, Tina smiled. She said Lydia gets her even-temperament from her, but to Lydia’s dismay, she also passed on her looks to Lydia.
“My husband is good looking, much better than me,” Tina said. “My oldest daughter, she’s really beautiful like her father. Lydia says, mom, `Why is my sister much more beautiful than me?’ I say, `Sorry, Lydia, it’s my fault.’”
Hong is with his daughter whenever she practices back home in New Zealand. He has never traveled to the United States for any of her LPGA starts. He doesn’t speak English. There is a small Korean community in Auckland where he doesn’t really have to speak English. Lydia speaks Korean with her father.
The Kos revealed Wednesday that they are looking for an American base to live. They may purchase an apartment, but likely not until next year, at the earliest.
“We are looking in Florida, Texas, and a couple other places where there’s no income tax,” Ko said.
Ko got a big laugh in the media room when she revealed part of her conversation with Phil Mickelson while she tested equipment at Callaway last week.
“Phil mentioned that one of his biggest mistakes was staying where the taxes are high,” Ko said.
Ko calls Mickelson an idol, and when asked her career ambitions, she pointed to Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.
“I want to be remembered like Annika or Lorena,” Ko said. “They did so much for the LPGA, the women’s game. One of the big things is I want to be known quite well to the spectators for being very nice and very friendly. I obviously want to be the world’s best golfer in the future.”
Ko’s first steps as a pro to that end come Thursday at Tiburon.