The meteoric rise of a teen phenom is nothing new in women’s professional sports, including the LPGA Tour.
But the defining digits for Lydia Ko, 18, are on a different level than those posted by rising stars from yesteryear as the world’s top-ranked female golfer prepares to make her debut in a Dallas-Fort Worth tour stop.
Ko will compete in Thursday’s opening round of the Volunteers of America North Texas Shootout after a weekend when she celebrated her seventh tour title in conjunction with her 18th birthday. The New Zealand resident, who leads the LPGA Tour in season earnings ($908,810), will head to the first tee with an added purpose. She announced Wednesday that she will donate this week’s paycheck to relief efforts for earthquake victims impacted by last week’s quake in Nepal that killed more than 5,200 people.
“Natural disasters, you can’t do much about,” Ko said, reflecting on a comparable quake that killed 250 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011. “So I thought, those people there, nice people and very innocent, I wanted to give this tournament’s earnings and donate it to them.”
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Considering Ko’s track record as a professional golfer, the sum projects to be substantial. She has yet to miss a cut in 50 career starts on the LPGA Tour and has posted top-10 finishes in more than half of her starts (58 percent, 29-of-50 tournaments).
Ko’s playoff victory at last week’s Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in San Francisco lowered her season scoring average to 69.59, tops on the 2015 LPGA Tour, and extended her stint atop the women’s world golf rankings to 13 consecutive weeks. Ko took over the top spot in February, becoming the youngest male or female golfer (17) to top a set of world rankings.
Yet despite those credentials, Ko insists she will be nervous about her debut in DFW.
“Yeah, I do get nervous. You have to take my word on that,” Ko said. “I think everybody has nerves. Some people show it; some people don’t. But to me, even just playing a round of golf with club members gets me nervous. I know I’ve got the nerves. If some people think I don’t look like I am nervous, then it’s a good thing.”
Ko has controlled those nerves well enough to pocket almost $3 million in earnings since receiving a waiver to join the LPGA Tour in October 2013. Unless granted a waiver, tour participants must be at least 18. Ko proved her readiness to tour officials at 15, when she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event as an amateur at the 2012 Canadian Women’s Open.
Morgan Pressel, who lost to Ko in Sunday’s playoff at the Swinging Skirts event, understands and appreciates her peer’s unique blend of skills. Pressel, 26, was 12 when she competed in the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open, a record for youngest Open qualifier that stood until broken in 2007 by Lexi Thompson, who also will compete in Irving.
“At her age, she plays with so much poise and calmness I don’t think you see from other kids her age,” Pressel said of Ko. “I guess she’s not a kid any more. She’s very, very impressive and always there [in contention]. She’s a very strong putter … and she gives herself a lot of looks at birdies.”
Ko will have plenty of challengers in the Shootout field, which includes eight of the top 10 players in the world rankings and 20 of the top 25. Stacy Lewis, the defending champion who grew up in The Woodlands, is third in the rankings. Inbee Park, the 2013 Shootout champ, is No. 2. Fort Worth residents Angela Stanford (No. 26) and Gerina Piller (No. 47), teammates on the 2013 U.S. Solheim Cup team, will be motivated by galleries filled with friends and family members.
But the fresh attraction for the 2015 Shootout is Ko, who began playing golf at 5 and posted a round of 98 while competing as a 7-year-old in the 2005 New Zealand women’s national amateur championship. She said she plans to introduce herself to Tex-Mex food and Texas barbecue during her first trip to the Lone Star State for something other than a flight connection at the Houston airport.
“I’ve been liking it so far, apart from the rain,” said Ko, who played a Tuesday practice round before competing in Wednesday’s pro-am at the Las Colinas layout. “The greens are really nice here, very pure.”
If Ko can adjust quickly to the course’s undulating greens, earthquake victims in Nepal could be in for a sizable donation after Sunday’s final round.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760