124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

My Shot: Lydia Ko

By Guy Yocom Photos by Andrew Brusso
January 20, 2014

Photographed by Andrew Brusso on Nov. 26, 2013, at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate.

SOMETIMES I'll be out somewhere and notice someone staring at me, as though I'm familiar but they can't quite place me. Out of the corner of my eye, I'll see them strain to attach a name to the face, like they aren't quite positive it's me. I can see them thinking, Could that be Lydia Ko? It's a bit weird, because for most of my life no one has looked at me for more than a second or two. I'm not famous enough for people to recognize me instantly, especially outside New Zealand.

WHEN I LAUGH after making a bogey, it's not because I think bogeys are funny. What I'm laughing at is how clumsy I was to hit a shot that led to the bogey. You can get angry at yourself for making silly mistakes, or you can laugh. Laughing is better.

MY LIFESTYLE isn't very glamorous. On weekdays I'm up at 5:30 a.m. After school I head immediately to the golf course. The work I do there is intense. It's how I've become a good player. I get home at about 8 p.m. There's just time enough to eat, prepare my schoolwork for the next day, then go to bed. The good part is, I don't have to do chores. Washing dishes, cleaning and cooking are not my responsibilities. I could do these things, but if you were me, would you take away six hours of golf practice each week in exchange for doing chores? As a family, we've decided the answer to that is a firm "no."

I'M A "SE RI KID." Before we moved to New Zealand from Korea when I was 6, my father took me to a golf tournament in Seoul. Se Ri Pak was already a legend, and we followed her. I thought it was the most amazing thing, the way she made the golf ball fly, and how the people adored her. There are many thousands of Se Ri kids in Korea, most of them older than me, who took up the game because of her. I think even the good Korean men—K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang, for example—were Se Ri kids in a way, because she elevated the sport so much.

IN KOREA it's called unni. It's what a girl calls an older girl who is special to her. For someone to be an unni, they must be someone you look up to and have a lot of respect for, almost like an older sister. Michelle Wie is probably my best unni, though I also refer to Christina Kim, Jane Park and Danielle Kang that way. Because I'm so young, I'm not unni to anyone. I'm just Lydia.

NEITHER OF MY PARENTS plays golf. When I was 5, my aunt bought me a 7-iron and putter. I would swing them, for fun. My first memory of actually hitting balls was on Jeju Island, a province of South Korea. My father took me to the range of a course there. People stopped to watch. They said, "You're good. You're very good." I thought, Well then, I must be good. My father doesn't play golf, but he noticed the comments. He began training me. He doesn't know about the golf swing, but he had played tennis and knows how to train an athlete. Even today he lays out balls at different distances in situations he senses are challenging.

MY PLAN has always been to attend college and play professionally at the same time. Where I go to college, I'm not sure. It might be in Korea, it might be in America. As a career, I'm thinking of photography. I'm always aware of my surroundings and try to look at things with an artistic eye. But there are so many routes. My mother majored in English, my father majored in P.E., and my older sister, Sura, majored in architecture.

NEW ZEALAND is very relaxed. It's a place where people take their time. If you're used to getting a hamburger in 10 minutes, when you come to New Zealand you should be prepared to wait 20 minutes. Our people are not lazy, we just don't see the need to be rushed. It's a better way to live. When I visit a crowded city, I get a headache. My instinct tells me to get to somewhere quiet.

SO MANY CHARITIES are highly visible. Famous people are tied to them, so you know both the charity and the identity of the famous person. These are wonderful, and I'm an ambassador for ROMAC [Rotary Oceania Medical Aid for Children], a charity in New Zealand. But I also fantasize about helping people randomly. I dream of coming across someone in need, someone I've never met and who has never met me, and helping that person. Something sudden and anonymous, as though I were an angel. Can you imagine desperately needing help, and seeing it come out of nowhere like that?

AT MY FIRST U.S. Women's Open, in 2012, I was so nervous I couldn't line my ball up to putt on the first hole. There's another kind of nervous, the kind you feel when you meet a famous person. One of our coaches from the Institute of Golf in New Zealand went to a tournament in Melbourne and brought back a hat signed by Rickie Fowler. She gave it to a friend of mine, who got crazy excited. I didn't see what the excitement was about. But when I met Phil Mickelson last November, and he walked with me to his car and signed a flag for me, I understood. I acted at least as excited as she did.

WHEN I TALKED TO PHIL about my family setting up a base in the U.S., he mentioned Florida because there's no state income tax. It would leave more money to do things for charity, right?

PHIL HAS his own plane. One of the neat things about turning pro—hopefully—is being able to fly business class instead of economy. Less jet lag, no sore back, and writing off the air travel as a business expense.

I'VE YET TO SEE anything really strange happen on the golf course. There's a TV show, "America's Funniest Home Videos," that has a lot of golf incidents. You'll see carts flipping over and people walking away. Golfers hitting balls teed in other golfers' mouths. Balls ricocheting and striking people. Very strange, dangerous things. I suppose they really happen, but I've never seen them. But I'm only 16.

AT THE WOMEN'S Australian Open last year I shot a 63 with three bogeys, one of them because I missed a three-foot putt. Going over my round that night I thought, There can never be a perfect round of golf. Even if you made 18 birdies, couldn't some of the putts have gone in the middle of the hole instead of the side? Couldn't all the drives have gone in the perfect center of the fairway? In fact, couldn't you just leave your putter home because every approach shot went in the hole instead of stopping three feet away?

IN GOLF you have to fight temptation. My max distance with a 9-iron is 120 yards. I've been in situations where I need 122 yards of carry, and sometimes I'll give it a go and succeed. The problem is when the carry is 123 yards. The temptation to get that extra yard out of the 9-iron is very strong, but I know I'm too far past the max distance. That's when I choose the 8-iron. That decision sounds obvious, but scaling back is really hard for most golfers. We all want to be a hero and be a little better than we are.


IN 2012, I played with Karrie Webb. We seemed to hit our clubs similar distances. Then, on one of the par 4s, we both drove the ball behind a very tall tree. I pitched the ball out sideways and thought Karrie would have to do the same thing. But she got this very determined look on her face. She chose a short iron and hit the ball straight over the tree and onto the green, pin-high. That was a shock to me. The power seemed to come out of nowhere. Since then, I've noticed that the best players seem to have extra distance they can call on when they really need it. I'd sure like to find that power.

THERE ARE TWO KINDS of practice. One is with listening to music—I love Rihanna—and one is without. If you're listening to music, you aren't really improving, you're just keeping a club in your hands and feeling a rhythm. It's enjoyable, but when the music is playing it blocks ideas from coming to you. If you want to get better, it's best not to have the headphones in.

THE DAY BEFORE my pro debut at the CME Titleholders, I lost my new iPhone on my way to the practice range. Is there anything more disastrous than that? It had all my music on it: One Direction, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. It had all my favorite apps, like Minion Rush and Candy Crush. It had phone numbers for all the important people in my life, especially my older sister. The phone was new, and it really was a terrible moment. And then, out of nowhere, someone handed me the phone. They'd found it. It was like getting my life back.

I TRIED BUNGEE JUMPING in Queensland. There was water about 40 meters below. I'm terrified of heights, but I told myself, Forty meters is nothing. It's a lob wedge. They fastened me into the harness. I looked down, and the distance suddenly appeared more like a driver. But I worked up my courage, and I did it. Some time later, in Auckland, we visited the Sky Tower. It's the tallest structure in New Zealand. And what did they have there but bungee jumping. From almost 200 meters. This time, I passed. There's a big difference between 40 meters and 200 meters. There's also a big difference between water below and concrete.

THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT I ever got came from Sir Bob Charles, who is the most famous golfer in the history of New Zealand. Last year I was in the same group as Mr. Charles in the pro-am of the New Zealand PGA Championship. He's 77 years old but is still an amazing player. He would hit a shot on the green and say, "Oh, I missed it," or "That one was terrible." And every shot was inside 15 feet. Mr. Charles is not easy to please. He didn't comment on my game very much, but when we finished someone asked him about me. "She has no holes in her game," he said. If a great player says that about your game and means it, you're ready for anything.

I DESPERATELY want a dog, but it's not looking good. My father and older sister are allergic to dog hair, and I'm going to be spending more time in the States, so, no dog. I've pointed out to my parents that we could get a Labradoodle, which is hypoallergenic. But we know that there really is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog.

THERE ARE THREE TYPES of Kiwis in New Zealand. One is a person from New Zealand. I'm a Kiwi. The second is the kiwi fruit. The third is the kiwi bird, which is the national symbol of New Zealand. The kiwi, like the penguin, cannot fly. It's endangered and quite rare. I've never seen a kiwi bird in the wild. But I'm only 16.

WHEN MY MOTHER AND I travel, we try to avoid hotels. We try to stay in condos or hotel units that have a kitchen where we can cook for ourselves. I've never been ill a day in my life. Neither my mother nor I have ever been to a hospital. We feel our diets have a lot to do with that. I pretty much live on fish, chicken, mixed vegetables and brown rice, with nuts mixed in with the rice. I don't care much for candy or sweets. I have one chocolate ice-cream cone a month but wouldn't miss it if you took it away.

I DON'T BELIEVE in golf gods. Good bounces and bad ones are random. I'm Catholic and believe in God—the big God—and what's important is to believe that He believes in you. If you don't believe in God, that's fine, too. There are many perspectives in the world.

WHEN I WON the U.S. Women's Amateur in 2012, I wore a red shirt with thin, black stripes. Two weeks later, I decided to wear the shirt in the final round of the Canadian Open. I won again. At that point, I gave the shirt to my aunt—a small gift to the person who got me that 7-iron and putter. When you start relying on superstition, it can be a problem.

IN A PRACTICE ROUND back in New Zealand, I came to a par 3 and hit a shot to the right of the hole. I teed a second ball and hit that one to the left. I teed another ball and holed it. I started to get excited but quickly realized it wasn't a hole-in-one. I've yet to make an actual hole-in-one. But it probably will happen. I've got so many chances ahead of me. I'm only 16.