RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lydia Ko is redefining the word phenom.
She is drawing history as her regular playing partner.
Even LPGA founders, the women who created the tour, are in awe of what Ko’s achieving.
“She’s a blossoming star,” Shirley Spork says.
Hall of Famers are gaping in wonder.
“She’s incredible,” Patty Sheehan says.
“She amazes me,” Annika Sorenstam says.
When Ko tees it up Thursday at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, she will be looking to post her 29th consecutive round under par in an LPGA event. That would equal Sorenstam’s mark as best ever on tour.
It’s staggering what Ko is achieving given she doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet.
At 14, she became, at the time, the youngest male or female to win a professional golf tournament, claiming the NSW Open title on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf tour.
At 15, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event at the Canadian Women’s Open.
At 16, she won the Canadian Women’s Open again and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
At 17, she took home the biggest payday in the history of women’s golf, claiming $1.5 million as the CME Group Tour Championship winner and Race to the CME Globe winner. Still 17, with a staggering eight worldwide professional victories already on her resume, Ko ascended to Rolex world No. 1, becoming the youngest player to top the world rankings in men’s or women’s professional golf.
With some grumbling last month over whether she had yet done enough to earn the world No. 1 ranking, Ko answered eloquently, winning in back-to-back weeks, taking the Women’s Australian Open and New Zealand Women’s Open as her ninth and 10th pro titles.
All of this leads to some big questions this week:
Is Ko ready to win her first major championship?
And does she need to win the ANA Inspiration to definitively separate herself from Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis as the best player in the women’s game?
History will be shadowing Ko once more. If she makes the leap into Poppie’s Pond Sunday, she will do so as the youngest major champion the women’s game has ever known at 17 years, 11 months and 12 days old. She would be almost a full year younger than Morgan Pressel was when she won the Kraft Nabisco in 2007. Young Tom Morris would be the only player to have won a professional major at a younger age than Ko, and he set the mark 147 years ago.
David Leadbetter, Ko’s swing coach, believes her game is in a good place at a major. The changes they made last year, turning her primary ball flight from a fade to a draw, have taken hold.
“She’s playing the game,” Leadbetter said. “She’s not playing swing, as was the case, to a certain extent, last year.”
Ko hasn’t logged a finish worse than T-7 this year. She is working on 10 consecutive top-10 finishes dating back to last year.
“She’s very confident right now,” Leadbetter said. “She’s ready to perform well. There’s no reason why not. She’s got the game.”
Ko is hitting the ball farther than she ever has. She averages 253 yards per drive, ranking 31st on tour in driving distance. That’s up from 66th her rookie year. She ranks better Stacy Lewis (58th) and Inbee Park (70th) this year.
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin believes Ko’s stats don’t fully capture how much more power she’s gaining.
“I think she has another gear when she wants to hit the ball farther,” Rankin said.
Ko is second in scoring on tour (69.0) to Hyo Joo Kim (68.87), and she’s second in greens in regulation (82.4 percent) to Inbee Park (83.1 percent). She’s sixth in putts per GIR.
With the ANA’s approach, Ko is hearing all the talk about the possible history this week.
“I've been watching Golf Channel, and they've been saying the spotlight is kind of on me,” Ko said. “It’s going to be, definitely, a tough week. I know that all the girls are trying to bring their A games together, and that's what I’ve got to do. I'm just going to try and have fun. Hopefully, I'll hit some really good shots, make some good putts and give myself a good run for it.”
As precociously cool as Ko seems to be under pressure, she’s not immune to it.
This will be her 13th start in a major, but she’s still learning how best to approach them.
“Two years ago, I said, `Oh my God, it's a major.’ This is where everyone tries to perform at their best,’ and all I was thinking was, `Major, major, major. It’s a major,’” Ko said. “I think that kind of threw me off a little bit. At the end of the day, it should be another tournament. The greatest players are there, yes, but that's kind of what it's like every week.”
Ko’s best performance in a major was her second-place finish at Evian two years ago, when she pushed Suzann Pettersen hard to the end. Ko has three top-10s in her 12 starts in majors. She was third at last year’s LPGA Championship and tied for eighth at last year’s Evian. She tied for 29th at the Kraft Nabisco last year and tied for 25th there two years ago, her only starts at that championship.
“I don't know, just something about majors, it really makes me nervous,” Ko said. “I know the first major I played was the U.S. Open. I couldn't even line up my ball on the first green, because I was so nervous.”
Ko says her goal is just to give herself a chance to win majors. She’ll have five chances this year to beat Pressel’s record as the youngest winner of a women’s major.
“Everyone says, `Oh, you're going to be the youngest winner in a major and all that,’” Ko said. “But to me, it's more important that I have fun playing the majors, and I play more consistently in them. That's been my goal because, you know, if I play consistently and get used to playing these great tournaments, I think that it will give me a better chance of hopefully being around the lead, rather than my goal being: `I want to win this major.’”
Given her impressive consistency, it will be an upset if Ko doesn’t give herself a chance to make more history this week.