Is Lydia Ko poised to turn professional?
The 16-year-old New Zealand amateur's interest in turning pro steadily escalated this year, even before she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open on Sunday, according to LPGA sources.
Ko began coaxing her parents this summer to more aggressively research her options for LPGA membership.
If her family believes she is ready to turn pro now, she is just two steps from becoming an LPGA member.
The first step belongs to her family, the second to the LPGA commissioner’s office.
As a nonmember winner of the CN Canadian Women’s Open, Ko is entitled to claim tour membership. She could claim it immediately and become a member for the rest of 2013 and through 2014. Or, she could defer membership to the 2014 season.
However, because Ko is only 16, she can’t claim tour membership without first obtaining a waiver of the LPGA rule requiring that members be at least 18. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan holds the power to grant or deny such petitions.
So this all starts with Ko’s family.
Will the family petition Whan for a waiver of the tour’s age restriction so Ko can claim LPGA membership?
And then will Whan grant a waiver?
As of early Monday afternoon, LPGA officials reported they had received no petition for a waiver from the Ko family.
The strong sense here is that Ko’s family won’t take long to petition for the waiver so she can claim membership based on her CN Canadian Women’s Open victory. It wouldn’t be surprising if she petitions in the next couple weeks. And the strong sense here is that Whan is leaning toward granting a waiver, despite his heavy concerns against creating an LPGA pathway for teens. As a two-time LPGA winner, Ko can be justified as an exception to the rule.
While it appears likely Whan would grant Ko a waiver, the big question is whether Whan would grant it for immediate membership, or defer Ko’s membership until the start of next year, or possibly until she turns 17 on April 24, 2014.
Ko has confided to those close to her that through the summer she has grown more comfortable and confident that she is ready to play the tour. She has played 10 LPGA events this year, with her victory in Canada among five top-10 finishes. Ko’s prodding led her family to begin more earnestly researching what the LPGA would require to grant Ko a waiver.
Earlier this summer, the Kos approached the LPGA about the possibility of a waiver so that Ko could attend LPGA Q-School later this year. The family also went as far as meeting with Lexi Thompson, to understand what she went through when she was granted a waiver of the age restriction before the 2012 season.
Thompson was 16 when she was granted a waiver after winning the Navistar Classic in 2011. Whan deferred Thompson’s waiver until the start of the 2012 season. Though it’s clear Whan would prefer players to be at least 17 before being granted a waiver, Thompson was actually 16 when she first teed it up as an LPGA member. She was one day short of her 17th birthday when she played the 2012 season opener.
Back at the Ricoh Women’s British Open last month, Tina Hyon, Ko’s mother, told GolfChannel.com that she had contacted Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s senior vice president of tour operations, to better understand what is required in seeking a waiver.
“It’s just to understand the process, to look at the options,” Hyon said at the time.
Ko said after Sunday’s victory that she trusts her parents and advisors to help her figure this out.
“I've got some people above me, like my mom and dad, they're the boss,” Ko said after her victory Sunday. “They're going to help me to make the right decision and to turn pro at what time. As I'm only 16 still, it's quite hard to make huge decisions. When I turn pro it's like a job. Money is all about it, and everything like that.
“I think my parents and New Zealand golf, they're all going to have a say, and hopefully we'll make a really good decision on when I will turn pro.”
As an amateur, Ko left $300,000 on the table winning the CN Canadian Women’s Open on Sunday. She left the same winnings on the table when she won in Canada at 15 last year, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the LPGA. Ko has won four professional titles as an amateur: the two LPGA titles, a Ladies European Tour title and an Australian Ladies Professional Golf title.
In 10 LPGA starts this year, Ko has won approximately $636,993 that she has not collected because of her amateur status. If she were an LPGA member, those winnings would rank her 10th on the LPGA money list. She hasn’t missed a cut.
Overall as an amateur, Ko has won in excess of $1 million without collecting.
According to Golfweek, Ko’s travel expenses are “largely funded by Sir David Levene, an elderly businessman in New Zealand whose six-figure donations are funneled through the national program.” Ko wears a Srixon hat because she is supported by the New Zealand Golf Federation, which features a development program funded by Srixon.
Ko can turn pro whenever she wants, whether the LPGA grants her membership or not. As an LPGA non-member, however, access to the tour would be limited to six sponsor invites, plus the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open. She could also gain access through Monday qualifying. She has played 10 LPGA events this year because she qualified for the Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championship in special categories, as an LPGA winner and U.S. Women’s Amateur winner, that don’t count against her six sponsor invites.
Ko has expressed interest in getting a college education, but she has made it clear she isn’t interested in playing collegiately. It’s possible she could play the LPGA while attending a university, as Michelle Wie and So Yeon Ryu both did.
Six months ago, Steve Williams told the Australian Associated Press he believed Ko was ready to turn pro.
“I would think someone like Lydia could only help the LPGA and help grow the game and their name,” Williams said. “There is no negative on going pro in my mind. There is nothing I can think of to suggest she shouldn’t play the LPGA tour.
“These days, she could continue to study while playing. Let’s face it, she already plays a schedule where she misses plenty of school.”