FAR HILLS, N.J. – Top-ranked female amateur Lydia Ko, the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, confirmed on Wednesday that she has turned professional. The 16-year-old, who was born in Korea and resides in New Zealand, is currently fifth in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings and has foregone more than $1 million in potential prize money from professional events, including four victories in the past two years.
According to news reports, Ko made the decision after taking advice from New Zealand rugby player Israel Dagg. Ko and the All-Blacks star appear in a YouTube sketch in which Ko announces her decision.
Ko has made international headlines for the past three years. In 2012, at age 15, she became the youngest champion in LPGA Tour history by winning the Canadian Open, an event she claimed again this past summer.
That 2012 triumph came shortly after she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in Cleveland, where she defeated Jaye Marie Green, 3 and 1, in the 36-hole championship match. Ko has also competed in the past two U.S. Women’s Opens, where she finished T-36 (2013) and T-39 (2012), earning low-amateur honors in 2012.
In 2011, at age 14, Ko became No. 1 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, a position she has not relinquished. She has earned three consecutive Mark H. McCormack Medals, which are given annually to the top-ranked male and female in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
U.S. golf fans got their first glimpse of Ko when the 14-year-old qualified for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, R.I. Ko backed up her No. 1 world ranking by sharing stroke-play medalist honors with Jihee Kim of Korea, but lost in the second round of match play to 2010 USA Curtis Cup Team member Stephanie Kono.
A year later, Ko became the youngest winner, male or female, of any professional tournament when she claimed the New South Wales Open in Australia shortly before turning 15. In 2011, Ko had finished runner-up in the same tournament.
Ko took up golf at age 5 after her family moved to New Zealand. She first took lessons at Auckland’s Pupuke Golf Club from professional Guy Wilson, who has served as her swing coach ever since.
Ko’s performance in professional events the past two years led to widespread conjecture on when she would turn pro. Her decision finally became official on Wednesday.
The LPGA Tour granted a petition from Ko on Oct. 28 to waive its minimum age requirement of 18. A similar waiver was granted by the LPGA Tour to 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion Lexi Thompson in September 2011. Thompson won her second LPGA Tour event on Oct. 13 in Malaysia; her first victory came in 2011 at age 16 in the Navistar LPGA Classic, after she had turned professional but before she gained LPGA Tour membership.
Ko has never missed a cut in 23 professional tournaments. She hinted about turning pro in September after finishing runner-up to Suzann Pettersen at the Evian Championship in France, the fifth and final major of the season. Ko is expected to play her first event as a professional at the LPGA Tour’s season-ending CME Group Titleholders Nov. 21-24 in Naples, Fla.
Dean Murphy, chief executive of New Zealand Golf, called Ko’s amateur career phenomenal.
“Her amateur record ranks right up there among the greats of the game,” he said. “She has won four [professional] titles, claimed the U.S. and Australian Amateur titles … and has been the World No. 1 amateur for more than two years without losing that title. That is a record that is unlikely to be matched by a 16-year-old again.”
David Shefter is a senior writer at the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.