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SportsSeptember 14, 2015

Golf: From Albany to the Evian – Reflections on Lydia Ko’s Debut Major Victory


Duncan Greive spent a month in 2013 speaking with those around a then amateur Lydia Ko for a feature. This morning he watched her win her first major.

A little over two years ago I was on the rural fringes of Albany, watching a 15 year old at the driving range. It was a sunny day, and she was squeezing an hour at the Institute of Golf in between her studies at Pinehurst School. She was there with her coach Guy Wilson, who also doubled as a kind of stand-in best friend, and her mother Tina, her chaperone and chauffeur. I’d been talking to those around Ko for a month, for a Metro feature, and had built up a picture of a post-human golf machine.

The reality was inevitably more prosaic. She was at once an entirely typical of a 15 year old kid – complaining about having eaten too much, baiting her mum about getting hair extensions – and something akin to a golfing robot. She had a precision and repetition about her swing which seemed not just beyond her years, but beyond humanity. Swinging a golf club looked like it was no longer a conscious action to her, but something closer to walking, eating or breathing. Like she’d done it so often that it required little conscious engagement. Where some young golfers – notably Michelle Wie – ended up with a tortuous relationship with golf – Ko seemed to have played it so much that it she could conduct her normal life while training at the highest level. Like that was normal. 

Throughout reporting the feature I was struck by the extent to which she had folded an ordinary life into golf. Her friendships were with coaches and competitors; she talked music and soap operas during competition; school, travel, hobbies, interests – all came through golf. It helps explain how she came to be both so great, while at the same time have such an unambiguous relationship with the sport

This morning that attitude, which had already brought her a peerless record of success in golf, finally brought her a debut major win, under cloudy skies at the Evian Championship in France. To say ‘finally’ is ridiculous on most levels – she is just 18, and the youngest major winner in LPGA history. But because everything else – from tournament wins, to turning professional, to attaining the world number one ranking – had come so easily to her, the lack of a major win on her resumé had begun to appear significant somehow. Particularly for someone whose demeanour always, always suggested unflappability – it was the only extant sign that she might find anything in golf difficult.

Over the course of an increasingly ferocious final round, she emphatically buried that notion. After six holes she was three shots back of Lex Thompson – herself an extraordinarily precocious talent – and it looked like Ko might be cruising to another commendable-but-not-quite finish. After watching an early birdie by Thompson, commentator Terry Gannon noted “she’s going to be tough to beat today”, and it was true: Thompson looked unassailable. When she birdied the sixth and seventh, to be three up with 11 holes to play, Ko’s chance at victory looked even more remote.

Then Ko went berserk, holing birdie after birdie in the most relentless style. She never allowed her opponents to breath, giving not a hint that she would consider dropping a shot. By the 16th – half a round later – she had a five stroke lead, and the tournament was essentially over. “The adrenalin that was kicking in, that comes in the heat of the battle for a major, has dissipated for Lexi Thompson,” said Gannon, sounding disappointed. He had every right to be: the closing holes, which only an hour earlier had looked poised to be bloody, were a procession.

Ko ended up winning by a remarkable six strokes. It was as if, once she realised the major was hers, any lingering tension which was derived from such a win’s absence from her record floated off into the sky. She played unburdened, not aggressively, but with even more brilliantly precision than usual. Fairway to green, flawlessly. On the 18th she holed out from over 20 feet away, then smiled, wept and smiled again, all in the space of a few seconds.

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It was a sublime moment, built on thousands of banal ones, like that I witnessed in Albany a couple of years ago. Even then Ko was essentially a complete athlete – driven, calm, competitive, dedicated and with a matchless work ethic. Now she has all that, and her first major. The entire LPGA must be trembling at the thought of what she’ll do next.

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