Lydia Ko Is the Greatest Young Golfer in the History of the Game

November 17, 2015

With five wins on the year, including her first career major, Lydia Ko is the favorite to capture her second consecutive CME Globe as the top LPGA golfer of the year. At just 18 years old, Ko is now the single most accomplished young golfer — male or female — in history.

Since winning her first title at age 15 years, 4 months, the Korean-born New Zealander has won 10 times on the LPGA Tour, twice on the Ladies European Tour, and once on the Korean LPGA Tour. That total of 13 major tour victories laps the field of her closest 18-and-under male or female contenders. Her consistency at such a young age has been downright remarkable: through her first 65 career starts, Ko has missed a grand total of one cut.

Ko has also set the mark for youngest to reach world No. 1 (17 years, 9 months) and youngest to win a major championship (18 years, 4-months). She’s also poised to eclipse $5 million in career earnings on the LPGA Tour at this weekend’s CME Group Tour Championship and could enter the top 50 all-time in career LPGA earnings. With her next birthday still more than four months away, Ko’s list of 18-and-under accolades is likely to keep right on growing.

Women golfers have historically been more successful at a younger age than men, so it’s not surprising that Ko’s accomplishments dwarf those of the four young phenoms to hit the major men’s tours in the last two decades. Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth never won a single PGA Tour or European Tour event before their 19th birthday. Ko has 13 titles to date.

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  • At 18, Tiger Woods was wrapping-up a decorated high school career, winning the 1994 U.S. Amateur, and beginning his NCAA career at Stanford. He entered seven PGA Tour events prior to his 19th birthday, but didn’t make the cut in any of them and didn’t record his first PGA Tour top-10 until age 20 years, 8 months. He won his first pro tournament two months later.
  • Sergio Garcia had a strong amateur career by age 18 — with victories at the British Amateur and on the lower-tier European Challenge Tour — but he didn’t turn pro until 19. His first victory came on the European Tour at age 19 years, 6-months.
  • Rory McIlroy was the only member of this group to go pro at 18, but he too failed to make much of a splash, capturing two top-10s by 18 years, 5-months, but only making 12 of 26 cuts prior to his 19th birthday. It took Rory until age 19 years, 8-months, to win his first European Tour title.
  • Jordan Spieth was just 16 years old when he made his first PGA Tour cut in his first career start and he made five of eight cuts prior to turning 19. But other than a starring role as a freshman on the University of Texas’s national championship team, Spieth didn’t accomplish much prior to his 19th birthday. Comparing Ko’s early success to some of her peers in women’s golf still shows her dramatically ahead of the pack.
  • Ko broke Morgan Pressel’s record for youngest to win a major (Pressel was 18 years, 10 months). But that major title was Pressel’s only victory on the LPGA Tour at 18 or younger.
  • As a 17-year-old amateur, Paula Creamer finished second at the LPGA Classic, and after securing her Tour card for 2005, Creamer added two Tour victories, with the first coming at age 18 years, 9 months.
  • Both Jessica Korda (2012) and Minjee Lee (2015) won their first LPGA title at 18 years, 11 months.

Not even phenom Lexi Thompson achieved half of what Ko has done at such a young age. While Thompson won her first Tour title in 2011 at 16 years, 7 months, and added another on the Ladies European Tour later that season, she didn’t notch another win for nearly two more years before claiming two titles in the closing stretch of the 2013 season. Before Ko, those four wins at age 18 or younger was the best performance by anyone in men’s or women’s professional golf. For further context, even after Tiger Woods started racking up titles in bunches after turning pro, it took him until August 1999 (23 years, 8 months) to win his 13th title. Ko has already equalled that mark, five years earlier than Woods.

Right now, the only other 18 or under golfer who owns an LPGA win is Brooke Henderson. She bested the field by 8 strokes at the Portland Classic this past summer, and despite missing out on the end of the LPGA Tour season due to wonky rules, she will have eight months left to notch a few more titles before turning 19 next September. Henderson would have ranked 11th on the LPGA Tour in scoring average — if she had played enough events — so it’s definitely realistic to expect her to match the 18 and under exploits of Creamer (2 wins) or Thompson (3). But matching Ko’s record is simply beyond reach.