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Komania nation divided on turning pro, following Wie

Lydia Ko
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Welcome to Komania. Population: Me.

OK, that’s not completely true. From my perch high atop the Lydia Ko bandwagon, I’m still surrounded by others, although many supporters voluntarily jumped overboard following the 15-year-old’s final-round 76 that left her in “only” third place at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.

That just leaves more room for the rest of us. Her performance makes seven top-10 results in 13 career starts in professional events for the amateur, which should be enough to make her the first golfer since Tiger Woods to have the suffix “-mania” attached to her name, even if it does sound like an Eastern European nation.

What’s not to like about Ko? She has a gorgeous swing and drains more than her fair share of putts. As if that’s not enough, she handles herself like a player twice her age. When she won last week in New Zealand, she cried tears of joy. When she lost this week in Australia, there were no tears, only congratulatory smiles for playing partner Jiyai Shin.

Shin tops 15-year-old Ko in LPGA opener

Great kid. Great potential. Great story.

Like most stories these days, though, it’s not enough to simply watch this one develop and see where it takes us. We must speculate and deliberate what the future holds.

In the case of Ko, this leads to two pressing questions: 1. When will she turn professional? and 2. Will she become the next Michelle Wie?

Let’s first address the first one. After finishing four shots behind Shin in the LPGA season-opener, Ko said, “I’ve got a couple of years until I turn pro, so I guess within that period hopefully I’ll be able to get a little bit better.”

That hasn’t stopped the masses from questioning her logic and debating whether she’s making the correct decision. In those 13 starts, Ko would have already banked more than a half-million dollars, which has some critics blasting her for leaving money on the table.

If that sounds more than a little callous, it should. Here’s all I need to know about her decision: I wouldn’t want Ko offering career advice to me, so I’ll refrain from offering any to her. Instead, I’ll just respect whatever she chooses.

The truth is, it’s unnerving how many people wish to push their opinions on her.

A quick admission: I didn’t know much about 15-year-old girls back when I was a 15-year-old boy, which could explain all those weekend nights reorganizing my baseball card collection. Now that I’m, well, slightly older than 15, I know even less. From what I hear, they enjoy texting and talking about boys and for the right price, some of ‘em may sell you a few boxes of samoas or thin mints.

That lack of knowledge makes me completely unqualified to definitively say what this specific 15-year-old should or shouldn’t do with her life.

Two things I do know are that Ko isn’t the average 15-year-old girl and when she does turn professional, that half-million will feel like child’s play. She will be showered with sponsorship endorsement deals that will likely exceed any earnings she can receive through tournament winnings. Call that a problem within the game, but it’s also the nature of the beast.

And so whether Ko becomes a play-for-pay competitor tomorrow or next year or the year after or not until after she attends college, she’ll likely come out of it a very heavily compensated professional – even before she ever hits her first shot.

All of which leads to that second question.

Wie is 23 years old, and already nabbed two career LPGA victories before graduating Stanford University last year. And yet, her name is somehow synonymous with wasted youth. She was dubbed a failure before she was given an opportunity to succeed; she is largely considered an afterthought rather than one of the better players in the world.

That, of course, is because Wie was the poster child for the hyped athlete whose reputation exceeded her performance level. Multi-million-dollar contracts for a teenager will do that. So, too, will a media contingent desperate for the next superstar.

Despite a thought that will make the masses wince, Ko could do a lot worse than ending up like Wie. Which is to say, a well-rounded college graduate who is among the best in her chosen field with enough money in the bank to last her a few lifetimes.

When asked this week about advice for Ko, Wie rode the fence: “I have no advice for her. Turning pro or not turning pro, going to college, not going to college, it’s a very personal decision. It’s not something someone can say: `I think you should turn pro. I think you should stay an amateur. I think you should do this or that.’ It’s her life; it’s her career. When I turned pro, I really wanted to turn pro. That was a very personal decision for me. I really wanted to do that, and I have no regrets. I hope she makes the right decision for her. Whatever decision she makes, it has to really just be on her and what she wants to do.”

For now, Komania stands as a nation divided. Divided about Ko’s decision to turn professional or remain an amateur. Divided about whether she will become the next Michelle Wie. Divided about just how much of a bad thing that would be.

As for me, I’m not leaving my perch anytime soon. Ko has a major “it” factor and whether it materializes into her becoming an all-time great or struggling to live up to her 15-year-old self, I’m content to sit back and let the story develop in front of me.