Prodigy? Phenom? Marvel? Ko just wants to be Lydia

Lydia Ko (right) has won two LPGA titles but she is still only 16 and needs the go-ahead from her mother to buy a camera.

Very politely, in a soft voice, with no whine in her tone, the prodigy asks that you do not call her that. Not young phenom either.

Not wunderkind. Not teen marvel. Capiche? The prodigy wants you to know she's a person not a thing; an athlete not a label; a reading-at-dinner-table kid not some freakish object of wonder.

She'd rather you just used her name. "I'm just Lydia. I just want to be me."

Let it be said, Lydia Ko is normal. Really. Problem is her golf game isn't. She may be fighting acne, yet this Kiwi via Korea is already world No.4 with two LPGA titles. She has to check with mum before buying a camera, but already has a second place in a Major.

She's only 16 - the rest of the Top 10 have an average age of 29 - yet her swing is so smooth it looks polished with heavenly oil.

What can one say, kid? English is a limited language. Prodigy is the only label that fits you.

People are fascinated by Ko because we can't comprehend the preternaturally gifted. Our lives unfold like set chapters in a book, but prodigies skip past them, as if the normal rules of existence fail to apply to them.

At five we were trying to tie our laces, but Ryan Wang was playing the piano at Carnegie Hall. At 12, we might be getting fitted for our first football boots, but Fu Mingxia was winning her first diving world championship.

Brilliance in braces has always been hard to look away from because no DNA, no environmental advantage, no 10,000 hours of labour, no astute parenting can explain its mystery. The prodigy remains sports' best-kept and most profound secret.

Martina Hingis at 15 had a craftiness which matched Batman's nemesis the Riddler. How, we ask, but it is never adequately answered. Athletes themselves cannot articulate it for what is freakish to us - Wayne Gretzky's early feel for ice, Boris Becker's teenage poise - is natural to them.

Rivals, even while familiar with prodigies, cannot entirely explain it either. An admiring Stacy Lewis, 29, who at 16 was a high-school girl chasing her driving licence, starts by saying Ko is consistent and doesn't have a "big miss". Then, as a compliment, she adds, "she is very naive to the situation".

Partnered with Ko during the 2012 Canadian Open, which the Kiwi won at 15, Lewis says: "She just made putt after putt and it was as if she had absolutely no idea where she was. She just plays golf."

The prodigy is a life of promised riches yet with its own unique cost. There is no time for school or for crushes, no normal silliness allowed, no teenage word spoken without being taped, examined and printed. Pressure is served for breakfast for you are not allowed to be anything less than great. For every picture in the newspapers of a trophy held by a smiling prodigy, there is no mention of a lost childhood. Nothing in sport comes for free.

To compete in a grown-up world and yet be a kid is a fine balance.

But so far Ko is treading it beautifully. As she walked to the practice range with this reporter yesterday she was all teenage shrugs and laid-back chatter. She told me she Facebooks her friends and, no, golf is never a subject.

With them, she is Lydia; with them, she's 16; with them, she's not the star with whom a photo must be taken. I ask about the last book she read and she says it was Mortal Instruments. Fittingly, for a player living in a fairy tale, it is a book series on fantasy.

Eventually, Ko will grow out of this label of prodigy and already she is growing up. She has a new coach in Sean Hogan of the David Leadbetter Academy, a new caddie in Scott Lubin, a new management company in IMG. The idle critic will quibble this is a dangerous changing of a winning team, but it is a lame cliche: Only the timid stay the same, only the brave know they must risk change to get even better.

And so yesterday, as the lunch-time sun glared down at her, Ko filmed her swing and studied it on a computer in a corner of the range. There was no crowd and no cheering as ball after ball quietly left her elegant club and travelled like an arcing white moon across a blue sky. This wasn't a prodigy, a phenom, a wunderkind. This was just a golfing girl of 16 in sweaty, determined search of her perfect self.

Amanda and Ko hit it off

Amanda Tan's wish was fulfilled at the Sentosa Golf Club on Tuesday when she played a round of golf with New Zealand prodigy Lydia Ko.

"She's my idol so you can imagine how high I am on confidence right now," said the Singapore Sports School student, 14, who is the local representative at the HSBC Women's Champions.

"She asked me what it's like to ride on the cable car and I asked her to tell me more about life on the LPGA Tour."

Things will get serious from today when the tournament's youngest player battles the 16-year-old at the US$1.4 million (S$1.77 million) event.

Said world No. 4 Ko, who is the LPGA Tour's youngest winner: "I'm pretty sure Amanda knows the course like the back of her hand and I hope she does well this week."

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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