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Ko should go pro

Lydia Ko is the back-to-back champion of the LPGA's CN Canadian Women's Open.

She is also a 16-year-old who is every bit as much amateur as your daughter who plays for the high school team.

That could change. Reports are that Ko and her family plan to petition the LPGA for a waiver of its 18-year-old age restriction so she can claim tour membership, though they may have it be deferred until the start of next season.

The Kos won't be making any final decisions until after she plays in the Evian Championship Sept. 12-15 at France, but sources say Lydia -- a native South Korean who lives in New Zealand -- will turn pro by year's end.

That would surprise no one who participated in this week's Safeway Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club, such is the respect for the wunderkind's game. When Ko successfully defended her Canadian Open title last week, she became the first amateur ever to win two LPGA tourneys.

"She's the real deal," says Se Ri Pak, the original South Korean on the LPGA Tour and a member of the Hall of Fame at 35 years of age. "When you look at her play … she knows what to do. It's not like she is a 16-year-old. She plays like a much older player. Her game is already pretty much settled down. That impresses me a lot. I guarantee she will be a great player."

TGF officials did what they could to lure Ko to Portland. It would have been a coup, a terrific drawing card for the event.

"Being so young and because of the time of year, she couldn't make it out here," TGF President Tom Maletis says.

While there is little doubt Ko could make it big on the tour right now -- she already has left nearly $1 million in prize money on the table -- there is a division of opinion if turning pro is a wise decision.

"It depends on the makeup of the girl," Maletis says, "but the majority of the pros on the tour would recommend (that a young player should) go to college."

Former tour player Kelli Kuehne, now a broadcaster with the Golf Channel, has reservations not about Ko's abilities.

"She is an amazing player, an immensely talented player," Kuehne says. "My concern is she is 16 years old. Let her be a kid. My perspective would be quite a bit different, maybe, if I didn't have a 4 1/2-year old."

"She has the talent to do it," says Juli Inkster, 53, another Hall-of-Famer. "I just think she's a little young. She plays 10 years and she'll be 26 and all she'll have ever done is play golf. Golf is always going to be there, but it's kind of hard to get your teenage years back.

"But that's her choice. She has already passed up a lot of money. It's kind of a catch-22."

Inkster was 23 her first full year on the LPGA circuit. At 16?

"I wouldn't have been ready," she says. "First time I ever played out of California, I was 18. But these girls travel around the world at 13 and 14 today.

"It's a tough decision she's going to have to make. She seems like she has a pretty good head on her shoulders. She's pretty relaxed. I think she'll figure it out."

Lexi Thompson is the player who can probably best relate to Ko. Thompson, 18, turned pro at 15 and won her first LPGA event at 16, becoming the youngest winner ever on the tour.

"I made the right choice," Thompson says. "It's always been my dream to play the LPGA. I made the Curtis Cup my last amateur tournament, and then I wanted to take my game to the next level and play against the best."

Still, Thompson -- who played with Ko several times in Australia over the past two years -- isn't recommending that Ko turn pro.

"She's an amazing player -- very consistent," Thompson says. "She has such a great attitude on the course, you can't tell whether she's playing bad or good. That's a great quality in a player.

"But everybody's different. I can't say whether she should or shouldn't. She's her own person. If she wants to go to college … it's all on what she wants to pursue."

Ko has said she wants to go to college -- Stanford, in fact. Of course, if she is pocketing major prize money as a pro, she can well afford to pay her way to Stanford. That's what Michelle Wie did after she joined the LPGA Tour.

Kuehne was 20 when she became an LPGA pro and 21 by the time she finished her first full season. She left the University of Texas in the middle of her sophomore year after having won the British and U.S. Amateurs but says she was not prepared for the pressures of the pro game. Perhaps, she muses, she was a little too old.

"Ignorance is bliss when you're young," Kuehne says. "The older you get as a player, there becomes an alternate sense of reality and cause in effect. At 21, it was like, 'If I don't make this putt, I want to make sure I have a tap-in on the second one.' When I was 16, I didn't care if I missed a putt. There's a beauty to being that green."

South Korean SooBin Kim, who played as an amateur at the Safeway Classic, has played the past two years at the University of Washington. She says it was the best decision for her.

"Until my junior year in high school, I wasn't considering going to college," Kim says. "But I thought it would be a really good experience for me. It was. I've grown up a lot in college, matured a lot. I've gotten to play with the best amateurs in the world. Your golf game matures, too. For a lot of people, you should go to college, get that experience and have fun."

For Ko?

"You need to think carefully when you turn pro," Kim says. "She's playing great, but I don't know. ... If she wants to go to college, she should get a college experience. She should wait and find herself. Not for what her parents want, but for what she wants to do."

With Ko, Kuehne says, "It's a very personal decision. First, mentally and emotionally what she wants to do. Second, financially for her family. It's pretty expensive to travel around. This lifestyle is not cheap.

"The main thing I would ask," Kuehne adds, "is that she makes the choice herself, with guidance from the people important to her. If she says she wants to stay an amateur, great. Let her graduate from high school. If she wants to turn pro, no one will argue with that. It's keeping it in the right context for her, and keeping it a game. The second you start losing joy from it, the game changes dramatically. That's my advice to her."

I understand all the reasons for staying amateur. They're valid. There are overriding factors, though, why I think Ko will -- and should -- turn pro.

One is the money.

"If she goes to college, she loses two to four years of earning power," Maletis says. "If they have the right disposition to handle it at an early age, more power to them."

Pak waited until she graduated from high school before turning pro at age 20. She won the U.S. Women's Open and was Rolex Player of the Year as a rookie.

"But it's up to Lydia," she says. "She has her social life. She could go to college, spend a little more time with friends and then go pro. Things were so much different when I was that age. If she stays an amateur until 18, she'll be OK. But she could turn now and make lots of money."

There is always the chance for injury. And the chance Ko's game will go south. That's what happened to Wie, who has never reached the enormous promise she showed as an early teen.

It's time for Ko to turn pro. Sure, there will be plenty of pressure. But from all indications, she'll be facing it while earning a pretty good paycheck week to week.

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