The Younger Games
Published on Friday, May. 24, 2013 09:43PM EDT Last updated on Monday, Aug. 27, 2012 10:43PM EDT
VANCOUVER - Lydia Ko was 6 when she and her mother walked into the pro shop of the Pupuke Golf Club on the north shore of Auckland in New Zealand. Guy Wilson, a young man himself at 22, was an aspiring golf coach. Ko’s mother, Tina, asked whether he could coach her daughter four times a week.
Mr. Wilson, for a moment, didn’t quite know who the mother was talking about, as Lydia Ko was shorter than the counter Mr. Wilson was working behind – but he said yes, as he was eager for any clients at all.
Mr. Wilson became a guru, and an older brother, to Ko. By age 8, she was playing every day, and by age 12, the South Korean-born player had embarked on elite-level training at the Institute of Golf – coaching, nutrition, strength and conditioning, sports psychology, even podiatry.
This year, her talent and training – becoming the de facto combination to succeed in sports – have flourished. Ko, a good-natured and often-smiling teenager whose go-to adjective is “awesome,” has reeled off a string of remarkable achievements, topped by a history-making win on Sunday in the Vancouver suburbs. Ko, 15, the only amateur in a field of 76 professionals, won the prestigious Canadian Open, becoming the youngest woman to ever win an LPGA Tour event.
Welcome to the intense new world of women’s golf. The trend has percolated in recent years, after the emergence of phenoms such as Michelle Wie, but has now been considerably amplified with golf back on the Summer Olympics roster for 2016. The teenage brigade in women’s golf is propelled by several factors. It is, for some, a chase for riches – Wie made millions when she was just 16 – and, for others, athletic glory. It is today all underpinned by sports science – essentially the crafting of athletic potential – happening at ever-younger ages. It’s a trend that has seized the golf world.
Women’s golf has joined many other sports that dictate seemingly ridiculous regimes for children and teenagers, often driven by the ambition of their parents. The list of horror stories from sports such as gymnastics are legion. However, at least for Ko, she seems to be remarkably normal, even if she works her sport like a full-time job.
Ko, with her big win at age 15 and four months, broke a record set just last September by Lexi Thompson of Florida, who won on the LPGA at 16 years and seven months. But before the likes of Ko and Thompson, the youngest winner in top-tier women’s pro golf was an 18-year-old, Marlene Hagge, a record set in 1952 in the early days of the LPGA. The mark stood for almost six decades before today’s onslaught of teenage prodigies.
Canada is right there in the game, nurturing young talents such as 14-year-old Brooke Henderson, who in June became the youngest person, male or female, to win a pro event – breaking a record set in January by Ko.
“The earlier they get on that type of program, the sooner they have success,” said Mr. Wilson in an interview from Auckland after Ko’s victory. “It’s not just a massive amount of skill. It’s about being able to perform.”
But the golf world is today watching the possible implosion of a can’t-miss talent. Wie, who at 17 was making a reported $16-million from endorsements, at 22 is playing the worst golf of her professional life.
For Bobby Kreusler, Thompson’s manager and CEO of Blue Giraffe Sports, a large golf agency, some normalcy is key in remarkable lives.
“Lexi still has to come home and take out the garbage and do the laundry,” Mr. Kreusler said.
For Ko, she seems to have it all: an easy smile and amazing talent. On the 18th-hole tee box on Saturday, she noted to her caddy he hadn’t yet cleaned her ball, and then laughed like a practical joker at his moment of chagrin. Ko then proceeded to crank the ball down the fairway, as she almost always does.
“We all love the game,” Ko said. “That’s why we’re playing and everyone’s working so hard and putting so much time into it.”
The demands remain relentless. Ko will play about 30 golf tournaments this year, more than a pro on the men’s PGA. And, along the way, there will be some school: She’s in Grade 11.
At Golf Canada, the sport’s domestic national body, Jeff Thompson’s job is to nurture young talent. He has a great group, including Brooke Henderson. One of his graduates is Maude-Aimee Leblanc, a 23-year-old who is the biggest hitter on the LPGA this year.
The Golf Canada national amateur development team program brings together top young golfers once a month, for four days to a week, to absorb everything from top coaching to sports psychology, nutrition and training. In the winter, the sessions take place in Arizona and Florida.
Mr. Thompson well knows the demands of international competition, but he understands an athlete is also a human being.
“They are getting better younger these days,” said Mr. Thompson, chief sport development officer at Golf Canada. “But ensuring they are enjoying what they’re doing will be good groundwork for a longer career.”