Perhaps the most unfamiliar thing about this week’s U.S. Open for Lydia Ko will be that she is not the youngest player in the field. Less than two months after turning 16, Ko will be competing in her second U.S. Open, this time as anything but an underdog and in a field that features several 14- and 15-year-olds.
Having won the U.S. Amateur and Canadian Open—making her the youngest ever LPGA tour winner—she is now the top-ranked amateur woman golfer in the world. She’s coming off a fourth place finish at the Arkansas Championship last week and a top 20 at the LPGA Championship at the beginning of the month.
She is also still a 16-year-old. Quick to smile or giggle. Pushing her large-rimmed glasses up on her nose before each shot, Ko strolled Sebonack’s fairways earlier this month looking very much like the teenager she is, except when she swings the golf club. There is no self-conscious poise to her casual movements and she slumps her shoulders when she hits a bad shot, chews on her bottom lip when listening to her caddy explain the breaks in the green and cocks her head quizzically when a put rolls past the cup.
And she listens to her mother.
“My mother usually decides who will caddy for me,” Lydia said in her mild Kiwi accent, a sharp contrast to her mother’s thickly Korean-inflected English. “I’m an amateur and haven’t played all the courses, so I don’t know the course perfectly. It is helpful to have a local caddy.”
For this year’s open the pair settled on Southampton native Louis deKerillis and spent a week earlier this month, between tournaments in upstate New York and Arkansas, getting used to Sebonack.
Tina Ko, Lydia’s mom, is her traveling companion, her tutor and her de facto manager. As Lydia practices, her mother strolls the course, a backpack of supplies on her shoulder, an open ear on the conversation between her daughter and caddy. Though not a golfer herself, Tina Ko has picked up the tricks of the game along with her daughter and scans a green for good receiving areas like a seasoned professional. During a practice round at Sebonack, the pair talk serious about golf and casual about mom-daughter stuff, sometimes nearly in the same breath.
Tina Ko moved her family from Seoul, South Korea, to Auckland, New Zealand, 10 years ago to get away from the bustle and stress of big city life. Seoul, she said, was “too complicated.” English speaking, safe and clean were the criteria, and after eliminating Canada and Australia, New Zealand became home without ever having visited.
“Too many cars, too many people, too much complication,” Tina Ko says with a stern scowl, and shake of the head, of her native Seoul. “In New Zealand, there is nothing negative.”
Just 5-years-old when her family moved, Lydia honed her golf swing in the windy hills outside Auckland. Her mother says they are not a golfing family, but Lydia picked up the game when she was given a pair of used children’s clubs by a relative at age 5. Two years later she competed in her first tournament, the New Zealand Women’s Amateur Championship, which, it turns out, was also her first tournament win seven years later, at age 14.
“She was very natural,” Tina Ko said. “She learned very, very quickly.”
Lydia will play in 10 tournaments this year, a few less than last year. Teachers from her classes—she’s taking psychology and photography, among other traditional subjects—forward her homework to her wherever she is on the road and Tina ensures that ample time goes to her studies. A future as a professional golfer is clearly in the cards, but her mother is quick to make clear that she wants her daughter to get a full and proper education first.
“She makes jokes that maybe if [Lydia] wins this tournament, she’ll turn pro,” Ms. Ko says with the wry smile of a knowing mother as she strolled up the fairway of Sebonack’s second hole, Lydia and deKerillis chatting seriously about the approach to the green a few yards ahead. “We will see what opportunity comes along. You never know.”