At just 16, Lydia Ko has won four professional tournaments and, on Sunday, nearly won a major championship at the Evian Championship.
Those kinds of results — and leaving nearly $1 million in tournament earnings on the table this season — suggest that it be a no-brainer for Ko to go pro. But is it?
The financial windfall is obvious. Ko can cash in to the tune of seven figures simply by turning pro. Sponsors will be lining up to have their logo all over the teen. She won’t be able to rake in the reported $10 million Michelle Wie pulled in when she joined the paid ranks at age 15 — in part because of Wie’s cautionary tale, part because Wie was a once-in-a-generation cultural phenom — but the money will be plentiful nevertheless.
Competitively, Ko can clearly keep up with the players that will soon be her co-workers. She’s won the CN Canadian Women’s Open in consecutive years and a pair of pro events in her home country. She had a serious run at the Women’s Australian Open to start the year and almost became the youngest major winner in the game’s youngest major.
But will Ko falter when it becomes her job to play great golf?
Pros have scoffed at seemingly incredible performances turned in by amateurs on big stages. After all, they say, the amateur has no financial stake in winning or losing. That’s a big misnomer. Were an amateur to win on the PGA Tour — which hasn’t been done since Phil Mickelson in 1991 — or a major championship, they would be set for life the instant they turned pro. They could live off the reputation of being the David amateur to take on the Goliath pros, allowing the mistaken perception of a massive talent gap to line their pockets for decades to come.
For pros, particularly those who struggle to maintain their livelihood, however, every putt can matter. There’s a dollar value associated with every dropped shot, every birdie made. It’s not assured that they’ll be around next year. Freewheeling it is difficult when the minutiae of a golf tournament is so burdensome that it makes taking the all-too-important long view of a tough sport difficult to do.
Turning pro comes with obligations. Sponsors will expect her to turn up at their events and functions, which will take away from her practice time. They’ll also expect results for their investment.
Ko will expect results, too. And while she has been brilliant, the sample size in pro events is relatively small. At some point, invariably she will struggle. How will she handle that? Will it happen when she’s 17 or 25? In between?
Slumps in golf are difficult to predict, though Ko seems to be sure of how she intends to play golf for the next 20 or 30 years of her life. Conversely, Michelle Wie has spent so much time looking for quick-fix answers for the weaknesses in her game that she has had trouble keeping afloat. That hunch in her putting stroke is not only telling of how much she struggles with the flatstick, but it’s also symbolic of the weight she has carried around for years because of the pressure to not only play well, but to win prolifically and be the face of women’s golf.
To that end, Ko will benefit from not being an American or Japanese, or living in South Korea. She will be somewhat shielded from media attention in golf-crazy countries. Even when she turns pro, Ko can remain a novelty act, appearing when it makes sense for her to tee it up on the LPGA Tour. If she falters, she’ll be less likely subject to the scrutiny Michelle Wie has faced from Day 1.
How is it so certain Ko will be comparatively bulletproof? Look at Lexi Thompson. The teen won two years ago, taking the LPGA’s Navistar Classic to become, at the time, the tour’s youngest winner. Since that ’11 breakthrough, Thompson hasn’t won on the LPGA Tour, though she’s been a frequent contender. To be frank, Wie would have been subject to widespread criticism for posting Thompson’s record — one almost . Unfair? You bet. But some of that was self-inflicted.
Michelle Wie made a mistake that Lexi Thompson learned from and Ko will as well. Thompson, as will Ko, is simply — said sarcastically — trying to take over the world of women’s golf. There is little will or interest in teeing it up on the PGA Tour, much less earning an invitation to the Masters someday. Wie, as well her parents, set the bar so high for herself that she invited critics to chop her down when she stumbled on the path to her lofty goals.
In February, Wie had little counsel to offer Ko on when to turn pro and what to do.
“I hope she makes the right decision for her,” Wie said. “Whatever decision she makes, it has to really just be on her and what she wants to do.”
There is no manual for doing this right. As is often said in golf, hit and hope.
If Team Ko lets Lydia be who she has been these last few years, she will make the transition to the paid ranks well. If her advisors preach patience and measured transition, they will buoy her chances of long-term success.
Lydia Ko has an opportunity to become an incredible champion and ambassador for the game, but she will need space and time to develop not only into that role, but first into a mature pro.