Rarely does lightning flash so brightly. From the moment Lydia Ko broke through the public consciousness early in this decade - bespectacled and innocent, with a magnetic charm that belied her middle-school years - she seemed like more than a generational phenomenon. Lydia always looked like a record book in waiting.
She was golf’s Mozart, a child genius with a virtuoso’s touch and the instincts of an old soul. Lydia won her first LPGA Tour event, the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, in 2012. She beat Inbee Park by three shots in that one, a remarkable accomplishment for any first-time winner. But this one went well above average. Lydia was an amateur at the time. And she was 15 years old, the youngest golfer in history, man or woman, to win on a major tour. She had already finished as low amateur at the U.S. Women’s Open and the AIG Women’s British Open, setting “youngest ever” records in both.
Six months later, while still 15, she won the New Zealand Women’s Open on the Ladies European Tour, again setting a record as the LET’s youngest winner and the youngest multiple winner on any professional tour. Once she turned, 16, still an amateur, she successfully defended her CP Women’s Open title, this time firing a final-round 64 to win by five shots. By the time she turned pro later that year it seemed like a forgone conclusion that Lydia would reach the No.1 spot in the Rolex Rankings and rewrite the record books.
Those predictions came true sooner than expected. One day before her 17th birthday, Time magazine named Lydia one of the “100 Most Influential People.” That same week, she won the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. To do it, she birdied the 72nd hole to beat Stacy Lewis, making her the youngest golfer to win three times on any major professional tour.
The accomplishments kept piling up. In July 2014, at age 17, she won the Marathon Classic. Five months later, she won the CME Group Tour Championship and the Race to the CME Globe. She was the youngest Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, the youngest player in history to reach $1 million in earnings and the youngest four and five-time winner.
In early February 2015, she became the youngest player, man or woman, to reach No.1 in the world at 17 years, 9 months and 9 days old.
Lydia won five times in 2015, each setting new “youngest ever” records. And when she shot a final-round 63 to capture the Evian Championship by six shots over Lexi Thompson, Lydia became the youngest woman ever to win a major and the second youngest person to do so behind Young Tom Morris, who won the Open Championship at age 17 in 1868.
That November she became the youngest player to be named Rolex Player of the Year.
The following April she became the youngest woman to win two majors when she made a remarkable birdie on the 72nd hole to win the ANA Inspiration by one shot over In Gee Chun and Charley Hull.
By the end of the decade, at 22, Lydia had won 15 times including two majors. She was 5-1 in playoffs, her lone loss coming to Brooke Henderson in an epic battle at the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She had beaten major champions with birdies in extra holes and beaten them by nine shots in blowout wins. In 2015, she tied Annika Sorenstam for the most consecutive rounds under par on the LPGA Tour (29). She was No.1 in the Rolex Rankings for 130 weeks and in 2016 became only the third woman in history behind Yani Tseng and Lorena Ochoa to sit atop the world for all 52 weeks of the year. That same year she won the silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, making Lydia Ko the highest placing female Olympian in New Zealand history.
She also holds a total of 29 “youngest ever” records.
Given all those accomplishments and when they came, it would be easy – even understandable – for Lydia to display some difficulties, some petulance or fits of youthful pique. But that has never happened. The week she won the ANA Inspiration, she spoke at the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports Conference where she cracked self-deprecating jokes with Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin and answered every question as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
Later that week, on the third tee during Saturday’s third round, she said to a volunteer, “Oh, hey, I almost didn’t recognize you since you changed positions. You’ve been on the other side (of the tee box) all week. Well, thanks again for coming out.”
Afterward the volunteer turned to a buddy and said, “Can you believe that?”
The answer is, yes, you can. No matter how famous she has become – and she has been one of the most recognizable female athletes in the world since she was a teenager – Lydia has always made whomever she’s with feel like the most important person in the world. It is a gift, one that exceeds her talent in golf, or the work ethic that astounds all who know her, or the demeanor that seems to become calmer as pressure builds.
Whether on top of the world or fighting through a swing change, Lydia has always displayed an Arnold Palmer-like magnetism, a natural charisma that has elevated the women’s game as a whole. She is a champion in every respect. And worthy of her spot in the Player of the Decade Final Foursome.