PHOENIX – Even the game’s pioneers are buzzing over Lydia Ko.
With the 17-year-old phenom climbing yet another leaderboard Thursday at the JTBC Founders Cup, Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan was marching out of the Marriott Wildfire clubhouse to catch some of the action.
“She’s amazing,” said Sheehan, who won 35 LPGA titles, six of them major championships. “The way she handles herself, she’s so mature and relaxed and in control. You just don’t see that in 16- and 17-year-olds like you see it in Lydia. It’s astonishing.”
With her 6-under-par 66 Thursday at the JTBC Founders Cup, Ko is back in contention yet again, tied with Sophia Popov, Kim Kaufman and Tiffany Joh as the leaders in the clubhouse at the weather-delayed event.
Ko hasn’t stopped making news this season. At the LPGA season opener, she wrested the Rolex world No. 1 ranking from Inbee Park, becoming the youngest player to hold that distinction in the history of professional golf. Ko went on to win back-to-back titles at the Women’s Australian Open and New Zealand Women’s Open and is coming off a second-place finish at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore in her last start.
Ko’s 66 on Thursday marked her 21st consecutive round under par in an LPGA event. Her run of sub-par scores goes back to the first round of her victory at the CME Group Tour Championship in November.
Ko hit all 14 fairways she looked at Thursday. She hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation. She outplayed a couple U.S. Women’s Open winners in her grouping with Na Yeon Choi shooting 70 and Michelle Wie a 73.
It’s getting to be a stunner now if Ko isn’t on a leaderboard. She’s seeking her 11th worldwide title in a professional event, her seventh LPGA title.
“You know who Kathy Whitworth is, right?”
Sheehan tweeted that question to Ko after Ko won in Australia last month.
Does Sheehan really think Ko could challenge Whitworth’s LPGA record 88 career victories?
“She has the potential, but I’m not sure she has the ambition,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan says that because she knows Ko recently revealed that she would like to retire at 30 and start another career. Ko is enrolled at Korea University, where she begins her studies this month with psychology as her major field of study. She said after Thursday’s round that she might also be interested in a career in broadcasting.
What did Ko think of Sheehan’s suggestion that she is good enough to break Whitworth’s record?
“It’s pretty cool to be compared in that way,” Ko said. “I've had six victories, so I've got 82 more to reach there. It’s a long way, and I’ve said I would like to retire when I'm 30 ... I'm trying to concentrate on one tournament at a time and that's all I can do.”
The Founders Cup was created to honor the LPGA’s founders and pioneers. So many of them are here this week. Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley and Betsy King are here. So are founders Marilynn Smith and Shirley Spork. The special honorees this week are Judy Rankin, Donna Caponi and Sandra Palmer, who will be recognized in a dinner on Friday.
With Ko doing things no teenager has ever achieved in the game, the pioneers are being treated to history in the making.
“I’ve got to work hard on my game to get halfway near their records,” Ko said.
Ko’s peers are just as abuzz over what they’re seeing as the game’s pioneers. They can’t believe Ko doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet.
“Lydia is awesome,” said Kaufman, a co-leader. “It's great to watch and great to watch her demeanor. I love to play with her. I don't think she realizes how good she is and what she's doing yet. I mean, she's so young. We are out there talking about if she's going to get her driver's license. That's all she's thinking about. She's so innocent.”
Amy Anderson, four shots off the lead, isn’t surprised seeing Ko contending yet again.
“She's incredible,” Anderson said. “I actually get asked about her a lot, like what's going on there. She is the real deal. I've never seen her hit the ball bad. Every part of her game is her strength, and it's really fun to watch. It's really fun to be part of the tour when she's here.”