Ko has the game to save LPGA - The Buffalo News
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Ko has the game to save LPGA

PITTSFORD – It’s probably my loss, but I must admit to not paying very close attention to the LPGA Tour in recent years. I’m like many casual fans in North America. I’ll check the results every so often or catch the highlights on TV before my attention wanders elsewhere.

No problem here with women’s golf, but the LPGA has had a lingering identity crisis since Annika Sorenstam walked away six years ago. Michelle Wie was hyped as the Tiger Woods of the LPGA. She has four victories and one major in nine full seasons on tour yet remains its most recognizable figure.

Look, there’s no denying that leader boards on any given weekend look like a pot of alphabet soup. I couldn’t pick out So Yeon Ryu from Ji Young Oh from Mi Jung Hur if they were sitting at my kitchen table. Blame ignorance more than anything – guilty! – but it still doesn’t solve the overall problem.

You know what does? Winning.

The LPGA is desperate for a dominant player who can bridge continents and age gaps, someone who is young and fearless and well-spoken, someone who become a household name and generate interest in fans who don’t necessarily follow golf. The tour needs someone like Bo-Gyung Ko.

Avid golf fans know her as “Lydia,” and she quite possibly could become the biggest name in women’s golf for the next decade or longer. If she can make up a four-shot deficit in the final round and win the LPGA Championship, she’s not only going to celebrate her first major, but she’ll also be ranked No. 1 in the world.

“We need somebody like that, a Tiger Woods, on our tour,” said Brittany Lincicome, the leader at minus-10. “It would be great if it is her because she is so young. Somebody needs to keep winning and winning. Definitely, somebody who steps up and wins as many times as she is will be the face of the LPGA Tour. And that’s what she’s becoming.”

You may not be familiar with Ko, but that’s certain to change in the coming years if not sometime today. She was lurking in a group at 6-under par after shooting a 1-under par 71 in the third round Saturday at Monroe Golf Club. She’s well within striking distance of Lincicome, who also shot 71 in the third round.

Ko has been under par in each of the first three rounds despite leaving shots on the Donald Ross-designed course in suburban Rochester. She had a rough start before making birdie on the 11th and 12th to draw within three shots of the lead, hit a bump on No. 13 and hit an 8-iron to 4 feet for birdie on No. 17.

“People who don’t play golf still know Michelle Wie,” she said. “I would love to be one of the known faces of the LPGA. That would be pretty awesome for somebody to come across me, not on the golf course, and say, ‘Hey, that’s Lydia Ko.’ That would be an awesome moment.”

So who is Lydia Ko?

She’s your average Facebooking 17-year-old who was born in South Korea and raised in New Zealand before moving around the corner from Mickey Mouse. She set up camp in Orlando, Fla., after turning professional last year and skyrocketing to third in the world rankings. She still hasn’t finished high school.

Ko is coming of age this year without being of age. She was granted admission onto the tour after the LPGA waived a requirement stating players must be 18 years old. She already has matched Wie’s career win total, which includes two victories as an amateur and two more this season as a professional.

And she’s already a millionaire.

Apparently, Ko knows golf.

She’s bright and mature beyond her years, but she confirmed that she’s just as absent-minded as the next 17-year-old when she forgot her ball marker before the second round. She borrowed a quarter from a caddie just before teeing off and fired a 69 before a fan base that is growing by the day.

“One of the guys was wearing a ‘Go Lydia Ko’ shirt,” Ko said. “I would have never expected that. I’m thankful for the people who have come out here. We’ve been getting great support this week. People are getting to know me more and more as I play more tournaments. The better I play, they’ll know me even more.”

In 2012, Ko became the youngest player in LPGA Tour history to win a tournament when she captured the Canadian Open at age 15. She validated that performance by winning the same event a year later.

“I just have to keep my head down and concentrate on what I do,” she said. “Good things will happen.”

Good things have happened. She was the top-ranked amateur in the world for 130 consecutive weeks before turning pro at age 16. It allowed her to earn money overseas before the LPGA opened its doors. The only difference between now and last summer is that she’s getting her share of the purse.

What’s right is right, right?

Ko paid her dues, literally, after surrendering $600,000 in winner’s checks from the Canadian Open alone. Inbee Park and Karine Icher took home winner’s shares in the two events – $300,000 apiece – for finishing second. Ten months after turning professional, Ko was third on the LPGA money list.

She picked up $480,000 for two victories this season, and she had eight top 10 finishes in 17 events leading into the LPGA Championship. The next time she misses a cut will be the first, including all 25 events she played as an amateur. She’ll get another paycheck today.

How big will depend on how well she plays in the final round, so it would be wise to keep an eye on her today. She’s worth your attention.

“It’s crazy,” Lincicome said. “You have to remember that she is only 17. There are no nerves. There’s no pressure, there’s nothing. She’s just out there playing and having a good time. It’s scary how much talent that little girl has. I wish I had that much talent when I was 17.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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