PINEHURST, N.C. – If you ask her, Lydia Ko will peer from behind the thick frames of her glasses and tell you that she’s just like every other teenage girl.
She hates the sound of the alarm clock in the morning. She had a “mental breakdown” upon meeting some of the top PGA Tour players Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2. At age 17, she’s just trying to have some fun playing a game.
True statements, sure. But as Ko continues her ascent through the rankings, they also belie the main point: She’s one of the best golfers in the world, regardless of age.
High-level women's golf is getting younger. Lexi Thompson served notice of that fact when she won a major this year at age 19, but Ko is the poster child for the movement. As a 15-year-old amateur, she won an LPGA event, then successfully defended that title in Canada a year later.
After turning pro last fall, she has shown no growing pains while adjusting to the play-for-pay scene, and Wednesday sounded like a player blissfully ignorant of the stakes as she looks to capture her first major title.
“It’s already June and I’ve turned pro like eight months ago, and it kind of feels like yesterday,” Ko said. “Just having so much fun and just being grateful that I can play on the tour at the age of 17 is just the best thing.”
Golfers often struggle with the question of whether success begets confidence or if it’s the other way around, but it’s not an issue right now for Ko, who has plenty of both. Already a winner this year at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, she enters this week at No. 3 in the Rolex Rankings, poised to become the youngest ever to reach No. 1 should she leave Pinehurst with the U.S. Women's Open trophy.
It’s a label that the Kiwi is still getting used to wearing.
“I don’t feel like the world No. 3,” Ko said. “When people will tell me that and ask me stuff about it, then I go, oh, yeah, I am. But me, I just feel like a normal teenager and think that’s what makes it more fun and exciting.”
Teens have been bursting onto the scene in women’s golf for years. Nancy Lopez tied for second as an 18-year-old amateur at the 1975 U.S. Women’s Open, and Juli Inkster, who is making her 35th and likely final Open appearance this week, first played the event at age 15.
But few if any have risen as far – or as fast – as has Ko.
“I think I play with Lydia every week out on tour, it seems like,” said Paula Creamer, who won her first LPGA event at age 18. “It’s crazy, I’m 27 years old and I’m a veteran. I came out when I was 18 and it was like unheard of.”
At age 50, Laura Davies has watched the women’s game trend younger, with Ko now leading that charge.
“Although Lydia is not big, she still hits at it and gets after it and hits it,” Davies said. “I think that’s why people want to watch the women play now, because it’s more dynamic.”
Whether rolling to a U.S. Amateur title in 2012 or winning three LPGA tournaments since, Ko has time and again made a difficult game seem easy. Beneath the teenage smile and placid demeanor, though, she admits to possessing a strong drive to succeed.
“I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else probably could,” she said.
Ko nearly got her first major title last year at the Evian Championship, when she finished second behind Suzann Pettersen. It was her final major start as an amateur and concluded a two-year stretch in which she finished as low amateur at six of seven majors.
Now she prepares to begin her third U.S. Women’s Open, where she is among the favorites, and she did not hesitate to make her aspirations for a major title known.
“It would be the top,” Ko said. “Everybody strives to win tournaments, and the majors are the biggest out of them all.”
With fans, media and the world’s best players gathered this week at Pinehurst, it’s a stage on which most 17-year-olds would likely wilt under the pressure.
Then again, most 17-year-olds wouldn’t have played their way here in the first place.
While Ko says there is no single secret for her success, she did reveal a game plan so delightfully simple that it could only have been crafted by a teen.
“I don’t have to think about everything else,” she said. “All I need to think about is just hitting the white ball into the hole.”
It’s a plan that has certainly worked so far.