Skip to main content

Amateur Ko, 15, a serious Kraft contender

Lydia Ko
Getty Images

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – The Kraft Nabisco Championship may have to hire a lifeguard to watch over Poppie’s Pond in Sunday’s finish this year.

There’s this young kid who wouldn’t shock the women’s game if she jumped in as the winner of the year’s first major championship.

Lydia Ko is just 15, and it’s not quite clear if she knows how to swim.

“I hope so,” Ko cracked Wednesday.

The women’s game has witnessed its share of phenoms, but nobody quite like Ko.

At 15 years, 4 months and 2 days old, Ko won the CN Canadian Women’s Open last summer to become the youngest winner of an LPGA event. Eight weeks ago, she became the youngest winner of a Ladies European Tour event, claiming the New Zealand Women’s Open. The week after that, she made a serious run at winning the LPGA’s season opener, the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. Ko shared the 54-hole lead with former world No. 1 Jiyai Shin but faded in the final round.

If Ko were to win the Kraft Nabisco, she would eclipse Morgan Pressel as the youngest winner of a major championship by nearly three years. Pressel was two months shy of her 19th birthday when she won at Mission Hills.

Kraft Nabisco Championship: Articles, videos and photos

You won’t find an LPGA pro who discounts Ko’s chances.

“I am just completely impressed with her as a player,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said. “I just can’t see where she’s not going anywhere in the next few years but being a very, very significant player.”

Ko, who was born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand since she was 6, doesn’t seem fazed by the game’s largest stages. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur last summer. When she won in Canada two weeks later, she was paired in the final round with Stacy Lewis, the LPGA’s Player of the Year last season and the current Rolex world No. 1. Ko wasn’t intimidated. Lewis started that Sunday one shot behind Ko but ended up six shots behind her.

Notably, Ko is paired with Michelle Wie in the first two rounds this week. As a 13-year-old, Wie tied for ninth in her Kraft Nabisco debut 10 years ago. She was fourth here as a 14-year-old and third as a 16-year-old.

Wie’s struggles of late are evidence that nothing’s certain, but Ko looks good as a possible contender again this week. Her combination of skill and temperament should suit major championship tests. She handles the spotlight so well. When Ko made a run at winning in the Women’s Australian Open, she shot 63 in the first round while in a marquee pairing with Yani Tseng and Wie. She was five shots better than Tseng that day, 11 better than Wie.

“She doesn’t seem like she’s 15 years old,” Tseng said. “She didn’t even look like she was nervous.”

Lewis was also impressed with how unflappable Ko was when she was paired with her in that Sunday final round in Canada.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Lewis said. “I don’t think she even knows how good she is.

“I expect her to come out and play really good this week. She probably doesn’t even really realize it’s a major or a big event. It’s just kind of the way she is. She’s just very calm and relaxed.”

Ko, who turns 16 on April 24, is the female universe’s version of Jason Dufner.

“She talks about being nervous, but, boy, you can never see it,” Rankin said. “She's just very, very calm. She has just a beautiful golf swing, and she seems to play within herself.”

The big question Ko keeps getting is how long she’s going to wait before turning pro.

Karrie Webb was asked before the Women’s Australian Open if Ko should embrace the amateur game a while longer.

“That’s not my advice to her,” Webb said. “Obviously, she’s proven that she’s ready to play professional golf.”

Ko has stated an interest in going to college, but she could turn pro and still do that. So Yeon Ryu won the U.S. Women’s Open while enrolled in college in South Korea. Wie played the LPGA while at Stanford.

“I couldn't really give a certain year of when I will turn pro,” Ko said Wednesday. “We don't normally think about it when we go back home. The time I think about it is when I'm here, getting asked the questions. My parents and I, my coaches, we have never really talked about it seriously.”

Ko is accompanied to tournaments by her mother, Tina Hyon. She picked up a former LPGA and PGA Tour caddie this week, Patrick Boyd, who now works in his family’s home and commercial security business in Southern California.

Hyon told the Sunday Star Times of Auckland, New Zealand, last month that there is no hurry to turn pro.

“I just think she is too young to make such a big decision, she's maybe a couple of years away,” Hyon said. “Lydia will be the one to make the decision. My role as a parent is to make sure she makes the most informed decision.”

A dive into Poppie’s Pond on Sunday would threaten to speed up the timetable.