The ‘phenom’ of Lydia Ko

Having won more than $US3 million in prizemoney before her 18th birthday, Lydia Ko’s problem is now what to do with it all.

"She's playing against seasoned professionals and really good players and it's just astonishing."
Charles Happell, Managing Director, Happell Media

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The golfing prodigy, whose exploits in her rookie season on the US LPGA Tour have smashed long-standing records and had commentators in a swoon, has shown she can manage her way around the golf course all right; it’s the business of managing the Ko Empire that is throwing up a whole new set of challenges.

At 17 years and eight months, Lydia is not allowed to drive, or order a drink in a bar, but she is allowed to amass an extraordinary fortune on the women’s premier golf tour. And that has meant since turning professional in October 2013, she has won precisely $US3,089,033.00. 

Her parents, dad Gil Hong Ko and mum Bon Suk, otherwise known as Tina, remain the formative influences in her life, keeping her grounded with a mix of old-fashioned parenting that encourages discipline and hard work, and also fosters strong links with her Korean heritage. 

Lydia’s affairs are managed by International Management Group out of Cleveland, Ohio, while ANZ came on board 12 months ago as a major sponsor, signing the girl wonder to a three-year-deal. 

And it is ANZ which provides a lot of financial advice to Ko through its private banking arm – as well as setting her up with a new EFTPOS card and servicing her day-to-day banking needs as happened on her recent trip back to New Zealand in November. 

Her manager at IMG, Michael Yim, has the job of looking after the prodigy, or ‘phenom’ as her teenage friends might call her, while she’s travelling from her Florida base and playing the LPGA tour.  

“She really doesn't think about the money. All she wants is to concentrate on golf and what she wants to achieve as a golfer and in life,” Yim says.  

“The financial side of it is handled between her family and her financial advisors. The great thing about her family is that there is a lot of trust between the family members. Lydia entrusts all of her financial and business affairs to her parents but at the same time her parents respect her decision as she ultimately is the boss. Their decisions and actions really stem from Lydia's goals and vision. 

“It is great to have ANZ as her sponsor whose expertise in wealth management and banking provides the best opportunity for her to manage her funds safely while maximising her earnings.

“On the course and on her job, she is as mature as a seasoned veteran but off the course she is like any other 17 year old girl, wanting to spend time with her friends and doing what teenagers do which is have fun. What amazes me is that she is able to control her desire to spend, something not many kids know how to do.” 

When Ko returned to Auckland last month, as part of her deal with ANZ, the bank’s chief executive in New Zealand, David Hisco, was delighted to see that she stayed not at a fancy hotel but the home of one of her old school friends, where they stayed up all night chatting and watching movies.   

Hisco said while he noted the slightest hint of an American accent emerging, Ko was essentially a ‘down-to-earth Kiwi’ who talked like a New Zealander and had very normal Kiwi interests which included, of course, being an All Blacks fan.  

Yim says he treats Ko pretty much the same as any of the more seasoned pros in his stable. The only difference is, because of her age, he makes sure he accompanies her whenever she’s away from Orlando, or entrusts someone else from his team to act as her guardian. 

“There really aren't any special challenges that are specific to her,” he says. “The challenge is the same as it would be for any other top player, which is balancing their time and making sure they do what needs to be done but not overwhelm them with too many requests,” he said. 

Yim, a Korean-American himself, understands Ko’s culture and the kind of values she’s had instilled in her by her parents, where hard work and discipline are key.  

“She is a very impressive person all around. I truly don't think I was as mature as her when I was her age. Some of the things she thinks, says and does is really beyond her years. She is smart, funny, confident, youthful, caring, and mature all in one. What impresses me the most about her is how she respects people, whether it's kids or adults. That really brings a smile to my face and makes it that much easier and fun to manager her as a client.” 

“Lydia doesn't want to be someone who she isn't and that's what makes her special. We all fell in love with Lydia as who she is and not as who we want her to be. I think that's why everyone including her sponsors love her for who she is, because she is Lydia. She just goes about doing her business, and she does it the right way. I think a "marketing makeover" only goes so far, but integrity goes a long way ….” 

Such was her growing global reputation, Ko was granted membership for the 2014 season by LPGA Commissioner, Mike Whan, as soon as she turned pro in late 2013. 

It’s a decision that can’t have been greeted with universal acclaim by her peers, because Ko’s regular participation was always going to make it that much harder for them to win tournaments, and prizemoney. She confirmed their worst fears when, at her ninth start, she recorded her first win as a professional, taking out the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic, and she has not looked back since. 

It was about this time that ‘Time’ magazine, in its April issue, chose the teenage golfer, who stood 1.52m in her spikes and wore large glasses, as one its 100 Most Influential People in the world. Alongside Hilary Clinton, Beyonce, Serena Williams and various other A-listers.

But as time marches on, it seems that the prestigious weekly – not known for making outlandish claims - might have been bang on the money with its selection of Ko in that august group.

For the 17-year-old is now arguably the greatest young sporting talent on the planet.

Indeed, she’s in the process of racking up a record to stand alongside the teenage greats of any sport, at any time. Certainly no-one in golf has seen anything like it.

Having already claimed the LPGA's rookie of the year award before the Tour Championship, Ko ended the season with three victories and 12 other top-10 finishes. She has not missed a cut in her 42 LPGA starts as an amateur and pro. In fact, she has not missed a cut – full stop – in any pro event she has entered since the age of 13.

In winning the season-ending Tour Championship, Ko displayed again a nerveless temperament in a three-way, sudden-death playoff that earned her US$1.5million – first prize of $500,000 and a $1million bonus for capturing the inaugural ‘Race to CME Globe’, an LPGA season-long points competition introduced this year. 

It was the biggest payday in women’s golf. Ever. That Monday, gave the private client guys at ANZ a man-sized job in managing the bulging L Ko account.  

In piling up that mountain of prizemoney, Ko acknowledged in November the fantastic riches that had come her way but seemed more concerned about resuming her normal life, as a teenager, mucking around with her school friends, and taking selfies on Instagram.

"It's huge money, you know," she said. "Even $1,000 is huge money. For us, $100 is huge money, so it's getting bigger.

“But the great thing about my friends is most of them don't play golf.

"When I'm hanging around with them, we don't talk about golf or the hook I hit on seven or whatever. So that's what I really love. I kind of feel like I can get off the course, get my mind free, and just be that teenager again."   

Lydia Ko has anounced she will play in the 2015 ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open at Royal Melbourne from Feb 19-22.

Charles Happell is managing director of Happell Media.

Photo: Chatchai Somwat /

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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