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Lydia Ko: Leader of golf's new young breed

By Paul Gittings, CNN
April 29, 2014 -- Updated 0248 GMT (1048 HKT)
Lydia Ko is a study in concentration as she closes on her maiden LPGA win as a professional in California. Lydia Ko is a study in concentration as she closes on her maiden LPGA win as a professional in California.
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Leader of the teenage pack
LPGA Tour hat-trick
LPGA record breaker
Early success
Mentor to a prodigy
Major ambition
Love of the game
Celebrity status
Canada double
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lydia Ko wins first LPGA Tour event as a professional
  • 17-year-old had won Canadian Open twice as an amateur
  • Ko claims inspiration for original golfing teen Michelle Wie
  • Annika Sorenstam nominates her for Time Magazone's 100 most influential people

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(CNN) -- Taking inspiration from the teenage exploits of Michelle Wie, already admired by the most successful player of her generation Annika Sorenstam and with a bucketful of talent, New Zealand's Lydia Ko has the world of golf at her feet.

Still only 17 years of age, Ko is in her rookie season as a professional -- the LPGA waiving their age limit of 18 on account of her talent and maturity -- and duly collected her first tournament win at the Swinging Skirts Classic in California Sunday.

It was not her first success at this level, Ko had already claimed the 2012 and 2013 Canadian Open crowns while still an amateur, but it was an important milestone at a $1.8 million tournament.

The South Korean-born Kiwi carded a final round three-under-par 69 at Lake Merced to hold off Stacey Lewis of the United States by a shot.

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Not only did she pocket $270,000 but the victory has lifted her to number two in the world rankings, just three days after her 17th birthday.

Wie fan

Wie's exploits, even before she reached her teenage years, are well-documented and Ko, who first picked up a golf club at just five years of age, quite naturally was a fan.

"I really look up to Michelle," she told CNN.

"She had a lot of success and attention at a young age. I have been very lucky to spend some time with her on and off the golf course over the last two years and she has been really gracious to me," she added.

Ko's latest triumph has already lifted her level with Wie for all-time career LPGA Tour wins on three and it's not hard to predict that there will be many more.

Sorenstam, who won 93 events, including 10 majors, is so impressed with Ko that she endorsed the teen phenom for inclusion in Time Magazine's lists of the most 100 influential people on the planet.

Read: Pettersen overhauls Ko for Evian glory

She was one of just five from the world of sport, the others gay NBA icon Jason Collins, Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman, tennis ace Serena Williams and FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.

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It is heady company but her inclusion in the Pioneers section is, according to Sorenstam, thoroughly deserved.

"Lydia Ko is exceptionally talented, mature beyond her years and well liked by golf fans and competitors alike," the Swedish legend wrote in the published citation.

"She is responsible for sparking increased interest in our sport not just in her native South Korea and adopted homeland of New Zealand but also among juniors across the globe.

Fantastic job

"Her early, record-breaking success brings with it incredible pressure — and she's doing a fantastic job handling the many responsibilities that accompany stardom."

Quite a compliment and Ko admitted that Sorenstam and another retired former world number one Lorena Ochoa were her idols as she honed her game.

"For a long time, I looked up to Annika and Lorena. They did so much for the game and I hope one day I can be remembered like them," she told CNN.

To be mentioned in the same breath, Ko will have to claim her share of golf's majors and came close to claiming her first when runner-up in the Evian Championship in France last year.

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Read: Teen star Ko signs with top agency

Few have any doubt that it is only a matter of time and Ko is prepared to be patient in her quest.

"I think it's important not to put too much pressure on myself at the majors, though, and continue to approach them in the same manner I always have.

"Last year, aside from Evian, I came away from the majors feeling a bit disappointed so there is definitely room for improvement," she said.

Ko was coached from the start by New Zealander Guy Wilson, only ending her full-time association with him because of the need for full-time help while playing a full schedule on the LPGA Tour.

Historic wins

She won her first professional golf event -- a tournament on her home circuit while still 14 and the following year became the youngest winner of an LPGA Tour event when she won in Canada aged just 15 years and four months.

It broke the record set by American Lexi Thompson, but the winners check for $300,000 went to South Korean runner-up Inbee Park because Ko was still an amateur.

Inbee Park also trailed Ko in fourth place at this weekend's tournament but is now the only player ahead of her in the world rankings.

Read: 15-year-old Ko wins LPGA event

Park is only 25 years old and has held the number one status for a year, surely to come under challenge from Ko, who was born in Seoul before her parents emigrated to New Zealand while she was a toddler.

Sporting stars are getting ever younger and Ko admits that getting to the top at such a tender age has not been without sacrifices.

"Golf has been my number one priority from a young age so I have certainly missed out on some things back home," she said.

Missing friends

"I do enjoy spending time with my friends and I miss them when I am gone. I keep in touch with them over Facebook and we hang out when I am home. "

She is hoping her own incredible exploits will encourage others to follow in her footsteps.

"On a global stage, particularly in women's golf, the game is really growing and I think many more girls are exposed to golf at a younger age.

"I just hope I can be a small inspiration to girls in New Zealand and elsewhere."

That much is certainly assured but Ko's level-headed and mature approach is what has so impressed the likes of Sorenstam and other expert observers.

Read: 10 things South Korea does better than anyone else

"I have been very fortunate to achieve success at a young age in golf. I realize how lucky I am to pursue the game I love.

"From a young age, I have had very high expectations of myself on the golf course and while I am proud of the success I have achieved, I know I have a long way to go," she said.

Hall of Famer Sorenstam sums it up succinctly. "She's leading golf's youth movement."

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