Lydia Ko to make professional debut in LPGA season finale

Stefan Postles

Lydia Ko takes the field for the first time as a golf pro this week in the LPGA Tour’s final event of the 2013 season.

Lydia Ko, the 16-year-old phenom with two LPGA wins on her resume already, will make her professional debut this week in the tour’s season-ending CME Group Titleholders.

Ko, who successfully defended her Canadian Women’s Open title in August, will take the field in the 70-player event on Thursday with Jessica Korda and a certain 24-year-old who has a passing acquaintance with being the next big thing in women’s golf.

The top 20 players in the world will vie for $700,000, the largest winner’s check on tour, in the talent-laden LPGA finale at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort’s Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla. The Big Three, top-ranked Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen (No. 2) and No. 3 Stacy Lewis, headline the festivities and will seek to take the crown from defending champion Na Yeon Choi.

Pettersen, who, as Ko’s playing partner when the duo came in 1-2, respectively, at the Evian Championship in September, believes the newly minted tour member is ready for the big leagues.

"I don't think Lydia has anything to prove," Pettersen told reporters Tuesday about Ko, who shed her amateur status last month and a week later joined the LPGA. "She's already proven she's good enough to be out here on a regular basis.  She's probably won more events in the few professional events she's played than most of us. I've felt it in my body losing to her and kind of just beating her, she's a great player, she has a great career ahead of her."

Pettersen did have some words of caution for the budding superstar, who is bound to receive greater scrutiny now that she’s joined the pro ranks.

"I hope she's ready for what comes," said Pettersen. "It's just not to go out there and play, but it's also responsibility to be a good character for this tour and kind of help grow the game of golf. I know her passion for golf is fantastic and she's a great girl. Don't forget, she's only 16. Give her a break as well."

So far, Ko has handled herself with aplomb since bursting onto the scene as the youngest golfer, at age 12 in 2009, to make a cut in a Ladies European Tour event. In 2011, she won the New Zealand Stroke Play and Match Play championships in the same week, and followed that up with stellar play at that year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur tourney. Early the next year, Ko became the youngest player ever to win a professional golf tour contest when she captured the New South Wales Open by four shots and went on to earn top honors in the Women’s Am.

On the pro circuit, Ko made her presence known when, in 2012, she became the youngest player to win an LPGA contest, besting Park by three shots north of the border. After a repeat performance a year later, and with a boatload of prize money left on the table due to her amateur status, Ko turned pro and petitioned the LPGA to waive the age requirement and let her in.

After admitting Lexi Thompson before she turned 18, commissioner Michael Whan quickly accepted Ko’s request.

"It is not often that the LPGA welcomes a rookie who is already a back-to-back LPGA Tour champion," Whan said in October.

In addition to her LPGA victories, the youngster Time Magazine deemed among its most influential teens and who made the cut in SBNation's top 25 golf stories of the season, has eight top-25 and five top-10 finishes, including her title defense, in 11 LPGA events in 2013. She has also rapidly ascended the world rankings and enters the week at No. 5.

"She's the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event and the youngest person ever to win an LPGA tour event," said Time’s editors, noting that the New Zealander born in South Korea was also "the only amateur to ever win two LPGA Tour events."

Ko’s next victory will pay dividends. Literally.

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