Teen Lydia wary of burning out too soon, like Tseng

THERE is much about Tseng Ya-ni that Lydia Ko admires including her meteoric rise to the top of women's golf and her 109-week run as the world No. 1. But as the 16-year-old begins her first year on the professional circuit, there is one aspect of Tseng's game that she hopes she never experiences - her dramatic loss of form.

"It's quite scary because Ya-ni was on a hot streak and was nearly unstoppable - I don't know exactly what happened to her," Ko said in a phone interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

After winning 15 times around the world in 15 months, the Taiwanese golfer did not pick up a title last year and failed to make the cut at three of the five Majors. Her subsequent drop to 37th spot in the rankings - which critics have attributed to burn-out from playing too many events and being under the constant glare of the media so early in her career - serves as a cautionary tale for Ko.

Though just 16, the New Zealand prodigy is tipped to follow in the footsteps of Tseng, who was the youngest golfer, male or female, to win five Majors. But, as the spotlight and expectations mount, the soft-spoken youngster is keen to avoid her idol's fall from grace.

Already the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour, following her CN Canadian Women's Open win in 2012, the South Korea-born Ko is well aware of the pitfalls faced by much-hyped American Michelle Wie.

The Hawaiian blamed a lost childhood as a key factor for her career struggles. To have time to be a normal teenager, Ko, who turned professional last October, will avoid playing in more than three consecutive tournaments this season.

"It's going to be a learning year so there's no personal targets," said Ko, who is in Florida to prepare for the Tour's season opener in the Bahamas next week. "The more I play, the more I realise there's going to be rounds where you thought you played well but the score doesn't reflect it."

To stay sane and sharp, down-time with friends in Auckland - listening to Bruno Mars tunes on the beach or a night out at the cinema - is critical. She said: "When I'm with them, I feel like a normal person.

"No autographs, no cameras - it's a whole different world from the golf course." That is not to say that the bespectacled teen, who has five professional titles to her burgeoning name, has shied away from attention.

Her decision to be a full-time golfer was revealed in a cheeky five-minute video with All-Blacks rugby star Israel Dagg. She also made headlines around the world after splitting with her coach of 11 years, Guy Wilson, and switching equipment brands.

"People say I should wait until I'm 18 to turn pro, that I shouldn't change coach, that I should stick to the same clubs," Ko said with a sigh. "I try not to take that all in - at the end of the day, I have to do what's best for me."

The child prodigy picked up golf at the age of five after receiving a seven-iron and a putter as a gift from her parents, neither of who played the sport. She will be showcasing her talents in Singapore next month when she makes her debut at the US$1.4 million (S$1.75 million) HSBC Women's Champions. The Feb 27-March 2 event at the Sentosa Golf Club also features world No. 1 Park In Bee of South Korea, Norway's Suzann Pettersen (No. 2) and reigning champion Stacy Lewis (No. 3) from the United States.

Nonetheless, all eyes will be on Ko, who first played here at the Queen Sirikit Cup last year, leading the Kiwis to a runners-up finish. She said: "I remember it was really, really hot in Singapore. "My body conditioning has to be better this time - hopefully, I can show fans what I'm capable of.

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