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Thursday, February 21, 2013
Lydia Ko has raised expectations with her play

By Mechelle Voepel

As she stood in the fairway Sunday in Australia, grimacing in concentration, you could imagine Lydia Ko having the same look staring at an equation on a blackboard in a classroom. Instead, she was competing for the first LPGA title of 2013, even though she is not yet a member of the tour or a pro golfer.

Ko chastised herself after her "bad" score of 76 on the last day of the Australian Open. She started the final round tied for the lead, double-bogeyed the first hole, but fought back to stay in contention. In the closing holes, though, this one got away and she finished third.

Her coach, Guy Wilson, said he saw small things that were impacting her swing down the stretch. He suggested they were easily fixable and perhaps were due to a bit of the jitters, even though Ko already has won three professional tournaments.

Hmmm & competing to beat the best players in the world gives you jitters. Ah, well, these things happen when you're 15, right? Uh, yeah, right.

Such absurd scrutiny and expectations don't apply to the overwhelming majority of 15-year-olds past, present and future. For those exceptional few who are so far ahead of the game, in whatever their endeavor -- sports, performing arts, business -- the script is different.

They skip several chapters but don't know if one day they'll have to go back and try to repeat them.

This week, the young New Zealander Ko is back at "work." In the Honda LPGA Thailand, she opened with a 3-under 69, putting her in a tie for 10th place, six strokes behind leader Stacy Lewis.

Lewis, incidentally, was just an average high school player at 15. She would go through back surgery, four years of college and almost three years as a pro before her first LPGA victory. That route has worked well for Lewis. But Ko is on a different path.

Ko's playing partners in the first two rounds in Thailand were Americans Lexi Thompson, who turned 18 this month and has one LPGA title, and Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, 52, a seasoned veteran long before Thompson and Ko were born.

Thompson -- this is ludicrous but true -- already has played in the U.S. Women's Open six times. She petitioned early into the LPGA, so gifted she couldn't wait until 18. And the organization knew it would have been wrong to make her wait.

If anyone understands the path Ko is treading, it's Thompson, who is still on it herself. She knows the thrill of it -- and some of the pitfalls. Accelerated progress means accelerated expectations.

There will continue to be speculation about how soon Ko may turn pro, when she might petition for early LPGA membership, and how she will navigate it all. Wilson told Radio New Zealand this week that Ko likely won't turn pro for at least another year and a half. We'll see if that holds true if she continues to play as well as she's started this year.

But one thing is for sure: Ko has raised the bar on herself irrevocably. There will be no gradual, measured revelation of her talent, either to herself or the viewing public. It already has happened.

If anyone understands the path [Lydia] Ko is treading, it's [Lexi] Thompson, who is still on it herself. She knows the thrill of it -- and some of the pitfalls. Accelerated progress means accelerated expectations.

She has shown she can be the best player in the world at a women's pro tournament. That isn't the same as being able to consistently do that or to maintain it for the long haul.

Still, the fact that Ko has the ability right now, at 15, is both fantastic and a little scary at the same time. It's like having the keys to a Ferrari before you get your driver's license. You have the means to drive fast, but can you handle it?

Inkster didn't win her first LPGA title until she was 23. Now, she's playing alongside kids who are younger than her daughters. This is one of the characteristics of golf, the so-called game for life: That you can play it from childhood to old age.

Generally, we know the best period for pro golfers is their 20s and 30s. But there are outliers on both sides. There's Ko: While still an amateur, she won her first pro title at 14 and an LPGA event at 15 -- eclipsing Thompson as the youngest-ever LPGA winner. Then there's Tom Watson, who was a shot away from winning the 2009 British Open two months before his 60th birthday.

There's a familiar adage that "age is relative." But relative to what? It depends on the circumstances and the person. In sports, the saying applies to those who achieve things that seem beyond their years as well as to those who achieve despite their years.

We are captivated by both because they are sort of breaking the rules. Time is the one thing no one can alter or control, but some gifted humans briefly can bend it in their favor at either end of the spectrum.

And sometimes, those time-benders even cross paths. One of the most electric, history-in-the-making sports events I can recall watching was Steffi Graf versus Martina Navratilova in the 1986 U.S. Open semifinals. Graf was 17 then; Navratilova was a month shy of turning 30, which is nearing elderly in tennis.

The match was so exciting because it dramatically contrasted the ravenous hunger of a star in ascendancy versus the wily survival skills of a veteran legend. Navratilova prevailed in a 10-8 third-set tiebreaker and then took the title the next day. Graf held herself together until she left the court, then wept with the fury of youth denied.

If Graf could go back and talk to her sobbing 17-year-old self, she'd probably laugh and say, "It's OK, kid. You'll win the first of your 22 Grand Slam titles next year."

That's the thing about perspective: It's almost impossible to have it at some of the times you need it most. If you're right up against the tree, you really can't see the forest. Difficulty grasping the big picture isn't so much a flaw of youth as a requirement.

That full-throttle ambition is what pushes some prodigies into being highly successful veterans. It is also the same thing that makes others spin out into wrecks.

If you watched Ko last week trying to grind as hard as she could on a day when she wasn't at her best, you may have been rather moved by it. I know I was. She is a girl among women, growing up fast in what's already her chosen occupation.

We've seen our share of teen phenoms in athletics. Some are practically normal because their sports lean heavily toward teenage peaks -- women's gymnastics, most especially. That also used to be the case in women's figure skating and swimming, although both have trended older now, with careers lasting longer.

Women's tennis had a barrage of "teen queens" in the '70s, '80s and '90s -- Graf, who turned pro at 13, among them -- and it's still a sport where we're not surprised to see teens emerge as top contenders. But tennis also has trended older. The current No. 1 player, Serena Williams, is 31. And the only teenager in the top 20 of the WTA rankings is No. 16 Sloane Stephens, who turns 20 in March.

Golf would seem to be the sport most contrary to youthful success because so much of it is about mental preparation, patience, familiarity with courses and conditions, and honing muscle memory. But being young also removes other distractions, allowing a laser focus on playing.

We've seen the likes of Yani Tseng, who is attempting to defend her title this week in Thailand. She already has five major championships at age 22. Yet she struggled last year with losing confidence because she wasn't playing well enough to her standards, even though she won three times.

Ko, if she avoids injuries and emotional burnout, has a very, very long time ahead of her to play golf. Part of us wants to tell her to just relax and have fun with her great talent.

But that's not the way it works when you're this good this young. She's on the rocket ship. She, and those around her, will just try to direct it as best they can.