When Lydia Ko became world No.1 earlier this month, comparisons with Tiger Woods were inevitable.
Ko, still 17, had just broken Woods’ record as the youngest chart-topper – by almost four years, mind you – so golf scribes around the world pondered her achievement and how the two compare.
Admittedly, nobody in their right mind is going to compare their global impact in terms of marketing, media drivers, personal “brands” – and especially not in the way their physical playing styles could change, or have changed, the way golf is played and viewed.
Having just watched Ko up close at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, I’d like to throw in my observations.
From an Aussie fan’s perspective, when Tiger came to Melbourne for the first time as the next big thing at 21 in early 1997, he arrived as the 14th ranked player in the world and left the same after a T8 finish at Huntingdale in the Australian Masters.
He smiled. He won friends. He spoke highly – and fluently – of his time Down Under. History shows he won the Masters at Augusta National less than two months later and ascended to the top of the heap for the first time by the middle of that American summer.
Yet he didn’t return to our region until well publicised big-money deals brought him to the New Zealand Open in 2002, then not again until repeat visits to the Aussie Masters in 2009 and 2010. Again, I understand the money he commands, why it happens and the benefits of him being in town. And I’m not suggesting Ko will ever be in a comparable position to one of the most recognised athletes the world has ever seen.
Ko spent a fair percentage of her youth in Australia, a country she ranks as a “fourth home” after New Zealand, Korea and her new base in the USA. So it’s hard to directly compare the different perceptions each must have of golf in Australia.
On Sunday, in one of the fiercest and truest tests of golf in the world, Ko stood tall to become the youngest winner of our national championship. She didn’t have the 10,000-plus people Tiger had on every hole at Kingston Heath in 2009, but she did have the glare of just her second outing as the world’s top player. And she thrived.
But this isn’t to discuss her on-course skills; it’s to contrast arguably golf’s greatest phenoms, particularly in the sense of how they relate to those around them.
To watch Tiger snake his way through hordes of fans from green to the next tee is to view a man wishing that teleporting was a reality. On the other hand, Ko is happy to engage with as many people as possible offering her pleasantries as sporting royalty brushes past. She actively tries to thank each and every person who speaks to her.
In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for her to go off-piste and walk on the other side of the ropes among those who’ve come to watch her play. No security, no niceties, just raw “Lyds”.
After signing her scorecard, she will not do any other post-round duties until she has given a souvenir (usually a signed ball) to all volunteers such as scorers and rovers, along with her hearty thanks for their efforts.
Next stop is the throng of autograph hunters and selfie snappers who want to commemorate their time with the world’s best. And then gives to as many media as possible.
Suffice to say, that’s not Tiger. (Yes, I realise the volume of fans is impossible to compare). His management’s desire to whisk him away ensures that’s impossible, even if it was OK with Eldrick, himself.
Ko, conversely, will not let one person down. If they bother to ask her for a few seconds, she thinks it’s only right to oblige those who paid their hard-earned to see her.
They are both superb media performers – and no doubt constant success through their careers has helped make each a master at saying the right things at presentation ceremonies. They both paid tribute to the volunteers after their wins (Lydia this week and Tiger after his 2009 Masters win) and spent time posing for pictures.
Tiger has many friends on tour, although most of those bonds are rarely seen within the confines of golf club fences. Ko, on the other hand, is demonstrably close with many in the women’s locker room. They’re happy for her to succeed, as she is them.
I’m not even sure if the young New Zealander knows she does it, but several times last week I witnessed her groan or contort in disappointment when one of her playing partner’s shots lipped out or deflected unluckily.
It’s who she is.
Quite simply, Lydia Ko is a tournament organiser’s dream. She rarely misses cuts, she never says the wrong thing (I say neither in comparison to Tiger) and she gives until even her management team is begging her to move along.
She’s an ideal role model who seems, at the grand old age of 17, to have an engrained philosophy to give back to golf and promote it to youngsters.
It’s even more extraordinary than her exquisite golf, if that’s remotely possible.