All systems Ko for teenager

All systems Ko for teenager
World No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand blows a kiss towards the camera during a catwalk segment of the HSBC Women's Champions press conference at Raffles City Convention Centre.

She stands at a mere 1.65 metres tall, wears a disarming smile, and speaks in a soothing tone.

But, make no mistake, Lydia Ko is a giant when she picks up a club, towering above all others in the world of women's golf.

Fuelled by back-to-back tournament wins for the first time in her fledgling career, the sport's youngest world No. 1 is the hot favourite at the HSBC Women's Champions tournament this week.

The 17-year-old fired a course-record 11-under 61 en route to victory at the New Zealand Open last weekend, a week after taking the Australian Open crown.

With 10 wins from 58 professional starts worldwide, the New Zealand teenager is earning praise - and nervous glances - from the rest of the LPGA Tour.

American fan favourite Paula Creamer said she felt "like a grandma" at 28, while US Open winner Michelle Wie described Ko as the "most solid, well-rounded golfer out there right now".

South Korea's Park In Bee, who surrendered her top ranking to Ko earlier this month, added: "Lydia is setting the benchmark now, putting together good rounds, not panicking - she plays like a veteran, not a first-year pro."

Just a glance at Ko's career statistics, and her rock-solid consistency stands out. She ranks first on the LPGA Tour in greens in regulation and scoring average, and 14th in driving accuracy, averaging 233m.

But the soft-spoken youngster seeks to play down the attention, even as the spotlight grows with each sizzling round, while the endorsement deals and interview requests keep flooding in.

"Not at full tank, a bit jet-lagged" was how she described herself during a press conference at Raffles City Convention Centre yesterday.

Ko and the rest of the 63-strong field will have to gear up for a four-day war of attrition starting tomorrow at the Sentosa Golf Club.

With its zippy greens, narrow fairways and thick rough, the chase for birdies on the unforgiving Serapong course has proved the downfall of many top players in the past.

Strong crosswinds expected this week will only add to the intrigue, but defending champion Creamer is upbeat about her prospects.

She sank a stunning 75-foot eagle putt for a play-off win over Spaniard Azahara Munoz in the US$1.4 million (S$1.9 million) event last year.

"I've always played well at this golf course," said the chirpy California native.

"You've got to make some good putts. There are some key holes that you just need to make par on and there are some where you've got to take advantage of the par fives."

Given the elite field on show, it is no surprise there has not been a repeat winner in the tournament's seven-year history.

Besides wily veterans like Suzann Pettersen and Stacy Lewis, the 2013 champion, other players to look out for include a resurgent Michelle Wie and South Korea's Amy Yang, who has finished in the top five in three of her last four events.

Forecasting a golf leaderboard is a fool's folly, but Ko is sure of one thing. "We will see some amazing golf this week," she said. "Hopefully, I have the game to stand up to it."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg

 


This article was first published on March 4, 2015.
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