Ko, 17, unfazed by weight of world No. 1 ranking

RSS

Even Lydia Ko wasn’t sure how the weight of the Rolex world No. 1 ranking would affect her when she claimed it almost a month ago.

Just two years ago, Yani Tseng proclaimed relief upon losing the top ranking and all the onerous baggage that went with it.

“It drove me crazy,” Tseng said back then. “Everybody wants to be No. 1, but nobody understands how hard it is.”

Ko’s mother, Tina, grabbed her own hair and tugged on it after first learning at the end of the Coates Golf Championship that at 17 Lydia would become the youngest No. 1 in the history of professional golf.

“Headache,” Tina said with a nervous smile back then. “She’s too young.”

And yet there was Ko Sunday in Australia, walking up the 18th fairway at Royal Melbourne, giggling with fellow teen Ariya Jutanugarn after nearly holing her final approach shot to clinch the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open title. Ko navigated a grueling setup on one of golf’s toughest courses to become the youngest winner of this championship. Though she won’t be 18 until April, Ko claimed her ninth professional victory worldwide, her sixth LPGA title.


Scores: Women's Australian Open


Most notably, she won in just her second start carrying the Rolex No. 1 title.

“I didn’t really know how I would play, how I would react to becoming world No. 1, and I always wondered about that,” Ko said Sunday in her post tournament news conference.

Ko knows now.

“It’s good to know, that just for my confidence, I can still play good and not really think about the world rankings,” Ko said.

It’s not such a good thing to know for all the players chasing Ko. This uncanny teen, with her precocious game, and a temperament that belies her youth, seems as well suited to the No. 1 ranking as her coach thought she would be.

“Lydia just takes it in stride,” Leadbetter said when Ko first took the top ranking. “She walks on this cloud. She doesn’t get overly excited. She doesn’t get overly down.”

Ko will go home to New Zealand as a conquering hero this week. She will play the New Zealand Women’s Open, which she won as a 15-year-old amateur. While Rolex No. 2 Inbee Park and No. 3 Stacy Lewis will try to cut into Ko’s world-rankings lead next week at the Honda LPGA Thailand, Ko will be delighting her fellow Kiwis trying to win there.

With a 2-under-par 71 Sunday at Royal Melbourne, Ko won by two shots over runner-up Amy Yang. Ko was the only player to post a score in red numbers every round.

Back at the Pure Silk Bahamas two weeks ago, where Ko teed it up for the first time as world No. 1, there was some debate over whether she really deserved the top ranking. It wasn’t mean spirited grumbling, or even a question of whether Ko was good enough to be No. 1. It was scrutiny of the Rolex rankings formula, and whether Ko had achieved enough yet to be No. 1.

Those doubts obviously didn’t penetrate the fortress Ko plays within, though she admits she gets anxious under pressure like everyone else, even if she doesn’t show it. In fact, she said she was feeling nerves on the front nine Sunday, when she made spectators wonder  if she was going to give away the title.

Ko three putted the first two holes to lose her lead to Yang. At the third hole, however, Ko answered with a lightning bolt before threatening clouds even moved over the course and halted play. She holed a pitch from 65 yards for eagle to re-take the lead.

Back at the LPGA season opener at Golden Ocala, Ko was uncharacteristically shaky coming down the stretch, blowing a chance to win the Coates Golf Championship on the back nine. When she left a delicate flop shot short at Royal Melbourne’s eighth hole, watching it roll back toward her off a steep bank of the green, her  bogey there allowed Yang to move into the lead again.

“Amy was right in front, and I could see that she was making a lot of birdies,” Ko said. “It kind of made me a little bit anxious because I wasn’t making a lot of birdies, but I tried to keep my mind together, and it ended up being great.”

After a timely 80-minute weather delay with storm clouds approaching, Ko closed solidly, playing mistake free on the back nine with two birdies and no bogeys. She finished formidably, like a player relishing the No. 1 ranking .