Golf-All systems Ko as protege sheds amateur status

Reuters

By Greg Stutchbury

WELLINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) - New Zealand teen Lydia Ko disclosed the most open secret in golf on Wednesday with her decision to join the paid ranks, closing the book on a glittering amateur career that saw her win four professional titles and rise to number four in the world.

The 16-year-old Ko, who is studying for end-of-year school exams, chose to make the announcement via social media, issuing a tweet that directed her followers to a YouTube clip in which she appears with New Zealand rugby player Israel Dagg.

"Made a monumental decision today with a little help from my @AllBlacks friend @Izzy_Dagg #LOVEGolf," Ko tweeted.

All Blacks back Dagg spends the entire video, that lasts almost five minutes, asking Ko when she would make the decision to turn professional as they played a round at a course near her home on Auckland's North Shore.

"When are you going pro? I want to be the first one to know," Dagg asks, only for Ko to tell him she still had things to work on with her game.

Ko finally confirms the decision after making a long putt to 'beat' Dagg in their round.

"Okay I'll do it, turn pro," Ko says. "Right now, right this second. Definitely."

Ko's decision had been expected after she finished second at the Evian Championship, the fifth major of the year in women's golf, last month.

Her mother Tina, then confirmed as much earlier this month when she said they had asked the LPGA for an exemption for her Seoul-born daughter to become a member.

The LPGA restricts the number of tournaments for players under the age of 18.

Ko was the youngest player to win a professional tournament when she clinched the New South Wales Open in Sydney aged 14. She has won three other professional tournaments since, including the defence of her Canadian Open title in August.

LANGUAGE DIFFICULTIES

Despite Ko's earlier protestations that turning professional could wait and she still had ambitions to attend Stanford University, like idol Michelle Wie, coach Guy Wilson had said it was only a matter of time before she turned professional.

Wilson began coaching Ko at six, where they were initially restricted by language difficulties as she had not yet been immersed in New Zealand schooling at that stage.

Ko had up to four lessons a week with Wilson, working from about 50 metres away from the green because anything else would have been too daunting, and he was amazed at the youngster's focus, motivation and ability to keep working at her game.

The moment he felt she would 'make it' was when she made the cut at the New Zealand Open as a 12-year-old.

"She was the youngest person to make the cut and... she finished seventh," Wilson told Reuters.

"That was the pinnacle of golf to play your national open against a professional field, to make the cut and finish as the best Kiwi by miles it just showed to me that this (kid) could be pretty freakish.

"The only thing that could limit us then was getting Lydia to other events because of the finances, and the invitations because no-one knew who she was."

Wilson said he and Ko had spent a lot of time this year working on her conditioning in order to attack more greens and while her first Canadian Open victory in 2012 had propelled her into prominence, people were still amazed at the level of her game.

"I think her age does not match her ability," he said while adding that she could also be a 'typical teenager' in her mannerisms and attitude.

"That has been the way she has been since she was seven. That's why people are astounded she's only (a teenager).

"She is better than most of the people on the LPGA Tour. Her age does not match her skill set." (Editing by John O'Brien)

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