PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Lydia Ko picked up right where she left off.
So did Stacy Lewis.
This was a marvelous formula for Thursday’s start of the LPGA’s 2014 season, with Ko and Lewis jockeying back and forth atop the leaderboard in the first round of the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic.
The 16-year-old phenom, maybe the future of the game, traded shots with Lewis, the best American in the game, with the shimmering, turquoise waters of the Bahamas as a spectacular backdrop at the Ocean Club Golf Course.
With a birdie at the 18th, Ko pulled a shot ahead of Lewis, moving atop the leaderboard with Meena Lee at the end of the morning wave. Ko opened her rookie season as an LPGA member with a 5-under-par 68 that felt like it could have been so much better.
“I thought I was playing much better than my scores,” Ko said. “I was just more shocked that I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be. I just felt relaxed and felt really confident.”
New clubs? New coach? New caddie? Same old story for Ko.
“Not many things seem to faze her,” Lewis said. “You can change her golf clubs. You can change her coach. You can change all this stuff, but she’s still the same person on the golf course. That’s what I like about her. She gets it done, and that’s all you can ask.”
Ko is making her rookie start with David Leadbetter and Sean Hogan as her new coaches, with Callaway as her new clubs and with Scott Lubin as her new caddie.
A lot of changes didn’t work out so well for Rory McIlroy last year. Ko was asked if the derailment of top players after major changes concerned her.
“Over the last month, hearing the word change, it could pretty much be my middle name,” Ko said. “I know what happened before, with other players, but you never know what’s going to happen . . . I wanted a challenge.”
Ko got one making her rookie in a pairing with Lewis.
Lewis, 28, became the first American in 18 years to win the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 2012. She followed that up last year becoming the first American in 19 years to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. And she begins this year burning for more.
“I’d like to get back to No. 1 in the world,” Lewis said. “That’s kind of the most immediate thing.
“I’d like to do both of those things (Player of the Year and Vare Trophy) in one year, at some point in my career. I have a list of things kind of in the back of my head that I want to check off, and those are two things that are on it. But you try not to think about it too much, because there are so many good players, and so many people who can be No. 1. It’s a hard place to be.”
Yes, Thursday was just the first round of the new season, but Lewis and Ko got off to the kind of start that should get the attention of Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park, who isn’t playing this week.
When Ko birdied the sixth hole, she seized a share of the lead, a stroke in front of Lewis. When Lewis birdied the 10th, she moved into the lead, a shot ahead of Ko. With another birdie at the 13th, Lewis moved to 5 under, two shots ahead of Ko, who responded with a late charge after a Lewis bogey at the 14th.
“I think our games are very similar, just the way we play,” Lewis said. “We both hit it solid and make some putts.”
With the Ocean Club exposed to the winds blowing off the Atlantic, control is an especially large factor this week.
“I think it’s a ball striker’s course with the greens,” Lewis said. “The greens are really grainy, and they do get pretty bumpy with spike marks. The best ball striker is probably going to win this week.”
That means Ko and Lewis could be jockeying all week on the leaderboard.
That’s fine with Lewis. Watching her and Ko chat and laugh throughout the round, it’s clear there is a growing rapport and mutual respect.
When Lewis was told after the round that Ko was impressed being paired with Lewis and Beatriz Recari, whom Ko called two of “the world’s greatest players,” Lewis good naturedly chuckled. Lewis is No. 3 in the world, Ko is No. 4.
“It’s unbelievable,” Lewis said. “She must not think she’s any good or something. I think she’s really good. Gosh, when she gets some confidence and really figures that out, watch out for the rest of the tour.”
Lewis didn’t mean that Ko lacks confidence. She just believes that when Ko’s confidence catches up with her talent, she’s going to surge to yet another level.
Ko, who turns 17 in April, has already won five professional titles, two of them LPGA titles.
Lewis ended last year with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including a victory at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, her second major championship triumph. Ko ended last year beating an elite field at the Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters, her first title since turning pro.