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As she walked to the 13th tee box, as 15-year-old amateur Lydia Ko pulled away from a star-studded field of professional women golfers like a Ferrari firing away from Fords, her mother Tina handed her a Ziploc bag of cherry tomatoes.
Ko proceeded to crank yet another long and straight drive off the box and then, walking up 13, snacked, offered some to her playing partners, and waved to her math teacher and his wife, in the gallery, visiting from her home back in New Zealand. Ko, earlier in the round, popping some grapes, said to her caddy that she likes to eat during a round of golf, as an empty stomach, for her, can be prey to butterflies.
In what is without doubt the golf story of the year – and one of the great sporting victories in recent memory – the kid betrayed no nerves at all as she booked a fantastic, historic and resoundingly decisive victory in a national championship halfway around the world from her home in Auckland.
Coming into the final round of the CN Canadian Women’s Open tied for the lead at eight-under, Ko led the final group on Sunday at the Vancouver Golf Club, fought off all comers and pulled away when she reeled off four straight birdies to start the back nine to leave the world’s best women on the LGPA Tour behind.
After yet another birdie on 15 – the toughest hole on the golf course this week – the world’s best sensed it was over, and the 15-year-old had it. Ko’s playing partner Stacy Lewis, 27, the world No. 2, the Tour’s money list leader this year, and herself once a star amateur, offered words of encouragement as the two golfers walked to the box at 16.
“It got a bit nerve-wracking,” said Ko after she had hoisted the championship trophy, “but Stacy Lewis, after my birdie on 15, she said, ‘You know, you can do it.’ And it was really great to have another player that I look up to giving me that much support. So it was really awesome.”
Ko never wavered and in the end booked a five-under 67 to finish 13-under to win by three. She became the youngest woman in history to win a LPGA Tour event, and the first amateur to win a LPGA tournament since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And while Ko has everything – moxie, talent, and a big smile – to be an instant star in the making, she insists she will remain an amateur for at least several more years.
On Sunday afternoon, it was all about the moment: her playing partners dowsed her in a celebration of water – hey, the kid’s 15 – on the 18th green when her final putt fell to a cheering crowd of thousands. And her playing glove is already en route to the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida, where Ko has always wanted to visit.
“The pressure was on there at the end and she striped it all day,” Lewis said in an interview. “You know, I was just glad to be there to watch it. I just like that she went out there and won it. It wasn’t handed to her. She went out there and won it.”
As with all seeming fairly tales, Ko’s precocious talent – adjectives, frankly, feel inadequate – has been carefully nurtured by a small group of innovative professionals in her adopted home of New Zealand, after her family moved from golf-made South Korea when she was six. She has been trained by an organization called the Institute of Golf in Auckland, which advertises it has “simply the best in golf coaching,” and boasts it is “home of the 21st century golfer.”
Ko – even as she is Grade 11 – practises like golf is a full-time job, 40 hours a week, and has dedicated coaching, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, everything. In January, still 14, she became the youngest person, male or female, to win a pro golf tournament (a mark since bettered by Canadian Brooke Henderson). In February, she entered the final round of the pro women’s ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open tied for first, but faded. At the women’s U.S. Open last month, she was the low amateur, tied for 39th. Two weeks ago she won the United States Amateur Championship.
She didn’t come from nowhere, even if it looked like a Sunday miracle. Jo Stallard, the wife of Ko’s math teacher who cheered the teenager on, knows it better than most, having first played with Ko when the kid was a kid, just eight years old, in a 54-hole tournament. Stallard, a 12-handicap, barely beat her.
“I knew right from the start,” said Stallard on Sunday, as Ko practised ahead of her round, morning dew still on the grass. “What she’s talented at is she is consistent. [Coach Guy Wilson] has given her a swing that’s reproducible. Her swing is very simple. It’s just mechanical, because that’s what he wanted. If you look at some of the other players, they’re all over the show. You watch how stable her base is. He’s just done a wonderful job with her.”
Walking the golf course, Ko floats. She enters a zone, standing over the ball, and otherwise it’s a walk in the park. She jokes, she laughs. At times, sure, after a run of pars, or a bogey, she gets a bit stone-faced. But she seemed unshakable on Sunday, a day golf victories go to die (hello, Greg Norman).
As Ko headed for the 15th tee box – before she birdied the toughest hole on the course – an older man shoved a pen and hat at her for an autograph, very gauche. She thought nothing of it, signed, and proceeded onwards, snacking on sushi rolls after she popped her drive on 15.
“She’s hilarious,” said Stallard. “Someone asked me if she was quiet and reserved.” Stallard paused, lowered the intonation of her voice. “Hell, no!”
Unlike former prodigies, such as now 22-year-old Michelle Wie, there does not appear to be multimillion-dollar endorsements in the immediate offing. After Ko’s victory, her mom Tina, beside the 18th green, was asked whether her daughter’s world will radically change.
“I don’t think so,” said Tina Ko, laughing. “Everything will be the same when we get back to New Zealand.”
Of the $300,000 first prize in the $2-million CN Canadian Women’s Open that Ko cannot claim because she is an amateur, even that lost pile of cash money didn’t faze Tina Ko.
“She is too young to make money,” said the immensely and quietly proud mom.
Ko won over everyone on Sunday. Suzann Pettersen, the Norwegian who is No. 6 in the world, was somewhat bitter after Friday’s round when she said, “It feels like you are being beaten by a kid.” On Sunday, after Pettersen finished tied for 15th, 10 strokes back of Ko, the Norwegian tweeted: “Wow, 15 years old, Lydia Ko made the rest of us look like amateurs!!”
And no victory is one person alone. At the Vancouver Golf Club, Ko had an insider’s edge: her caddy was a decade-long club member, Brian Alexander, a 63-year-old (“Lydia times four,” he quipped) real estate developer who has himself carded a best score of five-under 67, and knows the course’s tricky greens well. Ko’s putting on Sunday was key to the win, after she struggled with the putter on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
But Alexander – whose youngest child is a teenage girl Ko’s age – has never seen his club course played the way Ko played it.
“To see the lines that Lydia takes off the tee, they scare me,” said Alexander. “She cuts the trees so close some times, and she does it consistently. That kind of talent, I’ve never seen it in all my years playing golf.”
Ko, pressed by reporters about her future, about the lure of pro riches, calmly said, no, keep calm, carry on. The near future does, in fact, include the British Open next month – as an amateur.
“I don’t think any of my plans will change,” she said. “I mean, this is a great win, but I don’t think this will affect me changing [my plans for] my career.”
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Stunning Nathalie, is featured in the 2012 edition of www.si.com
Photo by Kayt Jones/Sports Illustrated
This Natalie Gulbis photo is from the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, which is on sale now.
Gulbis is actually not wearing a swimsuit in the image above, nor in any of the other photos in the magazine. It's bodypainting. Gulbis is one of three athletes included in the bodypainting section of the 2012 SI swimsuit issue. (Soccer star Alex Morgan is another, and the third is swimmer Natalie Coughlin.)
More of Gulbis' bodypainting pics can be found at si.com/swimsuit.
This isn't the first time Gulbis has posed in a bikini (although it probably is the first time said bikini was, in reality, paint applied to her body). Her first swimsuit calendar was released in 2004, and also in 2004 she appeared in a photo shoot for FHM magazine.
If you enjoy photos of Gulbis looking glam, then also check out this gallery, which includes pics from some of those Gulbis calendars of yore:
Cristie Kerr's record-setting victory at the LPGA Championship propelled her to the world No. 1 ranking among women golfers.
Kerr went from fifth to first in rankings released Monday. She is the first American to be ranked No. 1and fifth woman to win the top spot.
Annika Sorenstam was No. 1 the first 60 weeks of the ranking and Lorena Ochoa occupied the top position for 158 weeks until her retirement this year. Jiyai Shin took over for seven weeks but was passed by Ai Miyazato last week.
Kerr's move in the ratings was fueled by a 19-under-par 269 total last week at the LPGA Championship at Pittsford, N.Y. Her score was 12 strokes better than runner-up Kim Song-hee, the largest margin of victory for the event.
Kerr's rating point average of 10.45 is just better than Miyazato's 10.33. Miyazato finished third at the championship. Shin is ranked third followed by Suzann Pettersen and Yani Tseng. Miyazato, Shin, Pettersen and Tseng were each dropped one spot by Kerr's jump up the chart.
Anna Nordqvist is sixth, the only woman to keep the same place in the Top 10 as last week. Karrie Webb improved one spot to seventh while Kim went from 11th to eighth. Michelle Wie slipped two places to ninth and Angela Stanford fell one to 10th.
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The career specs of Michael Whan, the Ladies Professional Golf Association's surprise choice as its next commissioner, suggests that the three most important issues for the troubled tour are brand, brand and brand. Mr. Whan, a toe-tapping, gung-ho 44-year-old, told The Wall Street Journal, shortly after the Tour announced his appointment Wednesday morning in New York, that his top priority will be to "grow the global brand."
Second, he said, will be "connecting the LPGA brand with other corporate brands in partnerships." And third will be building pride — pride in the LPGA brand: "I want players and tournament owners and staff members to feel even more pride than they already do when they pull out their business cards and say 'I work for the LPGA Tour.'"
Mr. Whan (the name, of Scottish ancestry, was shortened from McWhan several generations ago) has substantial golf credentials. He once worked for the golf division of Wilson Sporting Goods and, in the late 1990s, served as executive vice president and general manager for TaylorMade-Adidas Golf's North American operations.
But functionally his key expertise has always been marketing. His first job after college was at Procter & Gamble Co., the famed incubator both of consumer brands and brand managers. His last job at P&G was director of marketing for oral care products — that is to say, Crest toothpaste. Later he was the chief marketing officer for Britesmile, a teeth-whitening concern. Most recently he was the chief executive of Mission Itech Hockey, an equipment company that expanded rapidly and was acquired last year by Bauer Hockey.
The LPGA has been in crisis mode since July, when a player revolt forced out former commissioner Carolyn Bivens. The top player complaint was the dwindling number of tournaments on the schedule. The number dropped to 28 this year from a high of 34 events in 2008. Some players feared that, with a big portion of the schedule up for renewal, the Tour might not muster even 20 tournaments for next year.
Luckily, the Tour found an able and energetic acting commissioner in Marty Evans, a board member and retired U.S. Navy admiral. She and her staff were able to re-sign several important sponsors for next year. Now LPGA officials hold out hope that the tour may stage as many as 24 or 25 events next year. The final 2010 lineup will be released Nov. 18 at the Tour Championship in Houston. "I promise you, it's going to be a great schedule," Ms. Evans said at the press conference Wednesday via remote hookup from Seoul, where the tour is playing this week.
Ms. Evans and her fellow board members also did a remarkable job of keeping secret Mr. Whan's pole position for his new job. After several early contenders withdrew their names from consideration, including Donna Orender, the former PGA Tour executive and current WNBA president, the final two contenders were thought to be Pete Bevacqua, the U.S. Golf Association's chief business officer, and a dark horse Kohlberg & Co. investment banker named Jonathan Ward.
Mr. Whan's name never surfaced publicly, but he fits the criteria that the Tour laid out even beyond brand building: business experience in golf or a sports company, an ability to build consensus in a high profile environment and a passion for and understanding of the game itself and relationships within the golf industry. Ms. Bivens was generally considered deficient in especially these last two areas.
"It's a difficult job," Dawn Hudson, the LPGA's board chairman, told the Journal Wednesday. "The Tour's revenues are only, what, $50 to $60 million. That's the size of a start-up company or an entrepreneurial enterprise in the second stage. But the skill set that's required by the commissioner is quite wide, and almost disproportionate to size and scale of the business."
The commissioner must successfully negotiate agreements and working relationships between groups with differing primary interests: the players, the tournament owners, the corporate sponsors, the broadcast partners, the media and fans. "We only have a staff of about 80 people, including the field staff. That's probably 20 percent of the staff the PGA Tour has," Ms. Hudson said.
Mr. Whan's challenge is not just to increase the number of tournaments and the overall purse, but also to create greater "soft" benefits for the players, such as more endorsement opportunities and improved playing conditions, Ms. Hudson said.
"I think he's going to find that suddenly he doesn't have just one wife, but about 200 wives," joked Michelle Ellis, president of the LPGA's player board.
Mr. Whan, for his part, is raring to go, even though he won't officially take over from Ms. Evans until Jan. 4. "I don't take this job lightly. I took this as a personal passion, as a calling more than a position," he said Wednesday.
He grew up in golf, with a father and mother who played avidly, and thinks of the game as a "safe haven." In our conversation after the announcement, he waxed poetic about the emotional bonds that the game creates, the conversations he is able to have on the course with his parents and his three boys (ages 15, 13 and 12) that he is unable to have anywhere else.
It's a safe bet his job won't feel like a safe haven for long, given its inherent pressures. But he said he is inspired to help the Tour promote the game's highest values and integrity on a global basis.
"What you've really got with the Tour is the greatest female worldwide competition going," he said. "At women's golf summits going back for years, we've always talked about finding future superstars from all over the world, not just Europe and the U.S.
"Today that's actually happening. A young woman in virtually any region of the world now can aspire to be a professional golfer, and in many cases find a role model from right there in her own base. And that's pretty special. In the world of competitive women's sports, it what sets the LPGA apart."
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