Lydia Ko

 Lydia Ko (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Lydia Ko
(Thanks to Wikipedia)

You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits.  In fact, as we are told,

On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.

And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl  like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.

There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number.  As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.

As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events —  women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.

When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.

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9 thoughts on “Lydia Ko

  1. Good post and please add my name to those unfamiliar with her. I think it is more than gender although that matters. The top thirty female golfers are likely comprised by women of Korean descent. Why? Because there are so many practice facilities in Korea that the young practice more. They get their 10,000 hours and then some. So, she is likely being pigeon-holed. Being from New Zealand may add to the lack of notoriety. Keith

    • In her case, I don’t think she spent much tine in Korea. But you are right about the majority of women who play golf for pay: they appear to be largely Korean.

  2. No, I’ve never heard of her, but news of the Final Four and Super Bowl teams never reaches here either! In a way it’s refreshing. Lydia’s photo reflects a very serene and graceful person – one you’d enjoy taking a long walk with and who woujld be selective about her words — not one to ramble on with run-on sentences!

    Thank you for placing a feature about a lovely young woman here in the inbox filled with queries and stories about the earthquake. I’m reaching bad-news limits on what my heart can handle, and this was a lovely respite.

    Am about to be on the road today – not to the coast but to Quito, and I hope that all of you have a great day.
    Lisa/Z

  3. Hugh, thanks for this very good blog! It raises or touches a lot of questions and concerns over gender fairness, sports fairness (football or golf?), and the general American ignorance of other countries. Including art, athletes from other countries. (Although, ironically, some of the most famous pro tennis players over the years, men’s and women’s, have been non-Americans: Borg, Lendl, Becker, Navratilova, Graf, Seles, Sharapova, etc. I can only think of a few non-American golfers of sustained high profile, none of them women.)

    On the media coverage issue, sometimes it’s a chicken-egg thing, or a Catch-22. The media might not provide high-profile coverage of something/someone it isn’t sure will draw viewers or readers — someone not famous, or a sport with fewer fans. Yet, often the only way a person like Lydia Ko or women’s golf can be come better-known is if there is more media coverage.

    With all the money at stake these days for TV and print media, they are more apt to give the best air time or newsprint space to the sure thing and relegate the rest to the world of the tape-delayed or small print in the scoreboard section . (The Sioux Falls Argus Leader, for instance, gave only five or six paragraphs to the coverage of all of Saturday’s NHL playoff in its Sunday paper. The NHL, for all the fervor of its die-hard fans, is not a big general draw.)

    Yesterday, I read a magazine story about the 1960s TV series “Star Trek,” which faced cancellation after its second season, but a massive letter-writing campaign by fans brought it renewal for a third. The network responded to the pressure, the outpouring of support from fans. And that often still works, so perhaps some of the issue for Lydia Ko and women’s golf is marketing — mobilizing their existing fans, taking out prime-time advertisements, working to build important allies in print and broadcast media to get high-profile features done on her.

    That’s not fair, of course, but it is where the world is at today. Such a fragmented media, such a fragmented viewership/readership, a media and its viewers/readers often more interested in celebrity failings than successes. Johnny Manziel, a guy who has thrown away his considerable gifts, and is on such a fierce self-destructive path it’s amazing he isn’t in flames, is getting a lot more coverage right now than Lydia Ko — sadly. But, he’s a football player. Figures.

    • Women’s soccer is the exception. I think they get more viewers than the men — which is why the discrepancy in pay is so outrageous. I am aware of the perplexity. It is hard to say whether they are less popular because they are less viewed or vice versa.

      • That’s a very good point about women’s soccer. They absolutely are the bigger draw — and they win more, too — than the men’s national team. And they should be paid better.

        A few years ago now, in the mid-2000s, the Minnesota Gophers’ women’s basketball team was the hottest winter sports ticket in the Twin Cities. They were a Final Four team, drew big crowds, had some really memorable players. Sid Hartman used to disparage the attendance figures by pointing to the lower prices of tickets for women’s games compared to men’s basketball games (and much lower compared to pro sports). Tickets, he said, were much more affordable ($7-$12 or something), so more people went. But I think Sid was really off the mark on that, as a lot of critics pointed out: television ratings for the Gopher women’s team were sky-high, fan events such as autograph parties drew large crowds, and I think people would have paid a lot more to see Lindsey Whalen, McCarville, Shannon Bolden, etc. (There more than 200 people lined up one Saturday at the veterinary clinic on Highway 59 in Marshall, waiting for Shannon Bolden’s autograph!) The perplexity is perplexing, if you will.

      • I was watching a program on ESPN yesterday on which they discussed the truly disgusting and horrible “tweets” that women’s sports writers and commentators get from “sports fans.” It was supposed that men simply don’t want women to tell them about sports! But, finally, one of the speakers, a black man, said “This country hates women, pure and simple.” Perhaps that’s it!

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