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Thursday, April 4, 2013
All eyes are on 15-year-old Lydia Ko

By Melissa Isaacson

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- With her hair dyed pink, purple and turquoise, Michelle Wie can hardly be mistaken for a senior citizen.

But playing Thursday's first round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship with Lydia Ko, the 15-year-old amateur widely considered the "next big thing" in women's golf, made Wie feel, well, "really old."

"It puts me back on memory lane," said Wie, who at age 13 (at this tournament) became the youngest player to make a cut in LPGA history. "When I was 13, you just kind of go out there and really are just in awe of everything. & When I was 13, I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm here.' So I'm trying to bring that feeling back and just feel really lucky that I'm here."

Ko, born in South Korea and a citizen of New Zealand, has been having that effect on the pros here, where she is competing in her first major and her first pro tournament on U.S. soil.

I think she's kind of ... ignorance is bliss. I don't think she realizes how good she is. 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.

-- Stacy Lewis

"I think she's kind of ignorance is bliss," said the LPGA's new No. 1, Stacy Lewis. "I don't think she realizes how good she is. & 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."

No. 2-ranked Yani Tseng recalled playing with Ko and Wie at the Australian Open in February, when Ko shot a career-best 10-under-par to take a 1-stroke lead after the opening round.

"She doesn't seem like she's only 15 years old," Tseng said. "She didn't even look like she was nervous. She just had fun. She smiled and after she made a putt, she was like, 'Thank you. Thank you very much.' It was so easy. It kind of reminded me [of myself]. I think I was like that when I played my best. & I want to be like her, so I'm learning from her."

With a pure swing that had Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin raving about its near-flawlessness, and a complete game that began with a birdie on her first hole and ended at even-par 72, tied with Wie and several others, Ko certainly looks like a pro.

But she said this week she does not know when she will turn pro and only really thinks about it when she is "getting asked the questions. My parents and I and my coaches, we have never really talked about it seriously," she said.

In the meantime, Ko has won three pro tournaments and is the reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champion. She is one of nine amateurs playing this week on a sponsor's exemption.

"I am just completely impressed with her as a player, and & I just can't see where she's not going anywhere in the next few years but being a very, very significant player in our game," Rankin said in a conference call last week.

Accompanied by her mother, Tina Hyon [maiden names are traditionally used in Korea], Ko is still a bit of a mystery for a rising star.

Born in Seoul, Ko said she was introduced to golf by her aunt at age 5 while on vacation in Australia, returning home with the gift of a couple of golf clubs. Ko's mother, who turned down interview requests this week, told New Zealand website last month that she asked a golf pro to teach her youngest daughter how to hit the ball soon after but was told the little girl was too young.

"I had to offer him some extra money to accept," Hyon said.

At 6, Ko moved with her parents and older sister to New Zealand.

"At home we live like a normal Korean family," she said. "We eat Korean food and stuff like that, and I like to watch Korean TV. But I feel the way I act is very Kiwi. I do feel like I have a Kiwi personality. I'm quite freestyle, rather than Korean-style."

According to the magazine "The Listener, New Zealand," easygoing and humorous are among the main characteristics that define a Kiwi personality. But based on Ko's reaction to some of the compliments her fellow golfers have given her, unassuming would be more fitting.

"I think everyone is being overly too nice," she said. "I mean, I look up to everyone here. I think they're really great. Hopefully in my future, I will be able to become like them."

Calling Wie her "idol," Ko recalled "The Genius" nickname bestowed on Wie as a golf prodigy. The two seemed to be all business on Thursday.

"We chatted a couple times but not every single hole," Ko said.

Wie was watching, however.

"Watching her play today was such a cool experience," Wie said. "I know I had such an amazing experience playing here as an amateur. I think that's why Kraft is so special because it gives amateurs these opportunities to play with the pros."

Wie, now 23, was the low amateur in her debut here at age 13, finishing in a tie for ninth. The next two years she repeated the feat, finishing fourth and tied for 14th, respectively. In her first year as a pro in 2006, she tied for third.

Wie has two professional tournament wins, but her career generally has been characterized as disappointing. She never reached the heights first predicted as a teenager, when she was determined to play men's tour events. In a May interview with Golf Magazine, LPGA great Annika Sorenstam repeated earlier criticism of Wie, saying, "What I see now is that the talent that we all thought would be there is not there."

Wie said Sorenstam apologized for the comments Wednesday night and that she accepted. And Thursday, Wie joked about Ko calling her an idol.

"That's really strange," Wie said. "I played with her for the first time in Australia, and she mentioned that to me, that she wants to go to Stanford like me." Wie received her degree in communications last summer.

Wie turned pro a week before her 16th birthday and soon after signed contracts with Nike and Sony reportedly worth more than $10 million a year.

Ko turns 16 on April 24. When she became the youngest player in LPGA history to win a pro tournament last summer in the Canadian Open, she received a souvenir coffee mug.

"I think it has become more fun and more serious at the same time," Ko said of her burgeoning golf career. "I'm an amateur, so money doesn't really matter as much as the pros [when] one shot counts and stuff.

"Obviously, I'm trying my best out here, but I've come here for experience. I think it's really fun, and I get to see a little bit of what being on tour is like as well."

Still chipping and putting Thursday afternoon more than two hours after her round  carried live by New Zealand TV -- Ko said she is still learning to deal with the attention.

"Like after every tournament when I go back home, everybody wants a little bit from you," Ko said. "Before, I had won the New South Wales, and it was just maybe a couple questions before the tournament and that was really it.

"Before I would accept pretty much every [media request]. I thought that's the way to go. I need to be nice. I can't do this person and not that person. But I've learned you can't really do everything. It's pretty hard to do."

And getting harder all the time.