Sooner than later, Lydia Ko will turn pro.
The 16-year-old Kiwi and two-time defending champion of the Canadian Women’s Open made her paid future very clear after finishing runner-up to Suzann Pettersen in the Evian Championship, the LPGA Tour’s fifth and final major of the season.
“The next time you see me, I may be a pro,” she said.
Ko took a flight home to New Zealand, where she’ll consult with her family and coach about her future. But the decision to turn pro isn’t as simple as a declaration made into the ether. It’s even more complex for a teen golf prodigy.
Michelle Wie knows. So does Lexi Thompson, who turned pro in 2010 at 15 years old. Thompson announced she was joining the paid set after playing that June in the Curtis Cup — the women’s golf equivalent of the Walker Cup — where she went 4-0-1.
Thompson’s manager, Bobby Kreusler, CEO of Blue Giraffe Sports, said the timing was all on Lexi.
“We really wanted the leave the decision to her,” Kreusler said in a telephone interview. “It’s her commitment. It’s her life. It’s her dream. And she was very clear about that from the beginning.”
Having done practically everything there was to do as an amateur — mind you, at 15 — there was little reason not to play against the pros. Kreusler sees the same thing with Ko. In fact, Kreusler thinks Ko must turn pro to further her game.
“If Lydia wasn’t playing the LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour as much as she is, I believe her game would suffer,” he said. “When you reach that level, if you can’t continue to improve the level of competition, then Lydia, and I believe Lexi, would have lost interest. She would’ve stopped developing as a player.”
The difficulty for Ko, as it was for Thompson, will be setting a schedule. Thompson’s family had a strong influence on limited her to approximately 15 events per year.
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Finding those events wasn’t difficult. Before Thompson won the Navistar LPGA Classic in 2011, she was afforded six sponsor exemptions on the LPGA Tour, as well the chance to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open and had no problem landing starts on the Ladies European Tour.
“She had opportunities to play everywhere, including on the PGA Tour,” Kreusler said. “And we thought that was a huge honor to be asked, but we also thought it wasn’t right for Lexi. Lexi’s place is on the LPGA Tour, and she’s going to try to focus on being the best player she can be on the LPGA Tour.”
Ko will be able to set her schedule, provided LPGA Tour commissioner Mike When approves any petition for membership that the Kiwi could file. Since Ko is not 18 years old, she must ask Whan to waive the LPGA’s age floor before she can accept the years of exemptions for her two Canadian Women’s Open victories.
However, Ko also will have to schedule time away from golf. The Thompson family and Kreusler were adamant about that for Lexi. Kreusler researched child prodigies in other sports, trying to find a common thread in their success or failure. Although it might seem simple, Kreusler did find his thread: a strong family unit and, usually, siblings.
“They came from an incredibly strong, supportive family, and they weren’t an only child, so you weren’t dealing with ‘stage’ parents,” Kreusler said.
Fortunately for Ko, she has an older sister, Sura. She also has supportive parents that brought Lydia to New Zealand when she was 4 years old. Then there’s coach Guy Wilson and a trio of other coaches who will all likely factor into the important, imminent decisions.
Among those is who Ko will pick to represent her. The Kiwi press has suggested powerhouse IMG is the frontrunner, but Ko will not have a lack of options. Neither did Thompson. Kreusler, who was already representing brother Nicholas and his budding PGA Tour career, not only refused to assume the job was his but also encouraged the family to scour the management world before making a decision. Ultimately, they chose Blue Giraffe, an opportunity Kreusler says he is very fortunate to have.
The opportunities that now lay before Lydia Ko are vast, not limited by her age or potentially limited schedule. In Thompson’s case, her sponsors — Red Bull, Cobra-Puma Golf, EA Sports and Rolex — all understood the exposure they were going to be with an investment in her. Ko and her team will make that clear to sponsors, too. In turn, the sponsors will place demands on Ko. Golf will become a job.
Ultimately, Lydia Ko will be a successful pro if she can find that crucial balance, between playing golf like a game and a job, being a pro and a person, growing up quickly but staying a kid.
As Kreusler put it: “That’s one of the biggest challenges for anyone: trying to maintain a balance, a home life — friends, family, boyfriends, interests, hobbies.”