Lydia Ko did not disappoint. The world's top female amateur came into the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open hot after securing her native championship, the New Zealand Open last week. After a white hot 63, a record-breaking 10-under par, to begin at Royal Canberra today she has given herself a good chance to win here as well.
Ko, 15, was sensational, her round including three bogeys, making it all the more remarkable. In between, she was near-flawless, putting an exclamation mark on her round by almost holing her six-iron second shot from 150 metres at the par-four ninth hole, her final hole of the day. She tapped in yet another birdie putt from just 20 centimetres, signed for her 63, and took the outright lead in a $1.2 million tournament from which she cannot take any cash as an amateur.
The Kiwi began her day with a nervous bogey at the 10th after blocking her opening tee shot into the trees, but quickly reeled off four consecutive birdies, then exploded with a 90-metre wedge shot into the hole for an eagle at the par-five 15th hole, flying the ball past the hole by two metres and spinning it back into the cup.
Rolling in a two-metre putt for birdie at the 18th, her ninth hole of the day, she had completed half the course in 30, and her playing partners, world No. 1 Yani Tseng and Michelle Wie, started muttering to each other about witnessing a bit of history: "Me and Michelle were going: 'She could shoot 59 today. We're going to see history'.''
Three birdies in the first four holes on the front nine, her second nine of the day, gave her a chance of beating the magical 60 mark. She was 10-under through 13 holes, but a bogey at the par-four eighth hole, her second-last, cost her dearly. She would have just 21 putts, stunning her playing partners who struggled to read the severe slopes on Royal Canberra's greens. "Her putting was incredible.'' said Tseng.
Ko grew up watching Wie, but completely outplayed her. The American carded a 74. Tseng shot 68 but also was left in the shade. "Playing with Lydia, five-under (par) is like nothing,'' said the world No. 1. The New Zealander was well behind the long-hitting Tseng and Wie off the tee, but kept knocking the ball in tight, often with one of the three hybrid clubs she carries. She has no longer iron than a six in her bag this week.
Already the winner of three professional tournaments in the past year -- the New South Wales Open, the Canadian Open on the LPGA Tour, and last week's NZ Open at Clearwater, Ko is plainly something quite special. "She still looks like 15,'' said Tseng. "I don't know how she hits the ball that well. I'm not even close to her at 15.''
Ko said she was nervous to play with such big names of the professional golfing world, especially Wie, who is her idol. "After my bogey on my first hole, which was the 10th, I thought 'what's today going to be like?' But after a couple of birdies, I started to feel pretty comfortable.''
She refused to think about a 59. "I've played good before and gone triple, par bogey or whatever. I didn't really think about what I was going to shoot. It was one shot at a time.''
Ko's 63 will not count as a Royal Canberra course record because Golf Australia allowed players to lift, clean and replace their golf balls on the fairways due to several low-lying holes being too damp after heavy watering by ground staff in recent hot weather conditions. But it will live in the memory of those who saw it.
The New Zealand wunderkind leads the Open by a shot after the first round from Columbia's Mariajo Uribe, who carded a 64. The world No. 8, Korean Jiyai Shin, came home late with a 65 to be just two shots back.
Of the Australians, Queenslanders Katherine Hull-Kirk, Sarah-Jane Smith and WA's Kristie Smith led the way with 68 and four-time winner Karrie Webb had an up-and-down day, rolling in a birdie putt at the last for a two-under par 71.
But they are all chasing Ko, who will tee off in her second round at 12.50 tomorrow. She seems oblivious to any pressure. This afternoon, she completed her media commitments and headed to the practice range. "I mean, even if it was good today, you never know what is going to happen tomorrow because it's a new day.''