"Hopefully someday I can be World No. 1," says Lydia Ko, her eyes sparkling behind lab-girl spectacles, her smile deferential. And you're thinking: Someday? Like, maybe, the fourth Sunday in June? The LPGA rookie then adds, "That's always been a goal of mine, to be at the top." And you're thinking: Always? Karrie Webb has sunglasses older than you. Ko tilts her head and flashes a grin that is 22% impudent and 78% teacher's pet. She says, "I'm sure nobody dreams of being second!"
You're thinking: Whoa, Nellie! Where do I buy some of this Lydia Ko elixir? But it can't be bottled, can't be faked, can't even be explained. What we've got here is a singular teenager, a South Korean — born New Zealander who is somewhere between a dark horse pick and a favorite to win the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
It's not hype, either. She's third in the Rolex Rankings. A two-time LPGA winner as an amateur, Ko celebrated her 17th birthday, in April, by winning her third event — and her first as a pro — at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic. That same week she made TIME's annual list of the world's Top 100 Most Influential People. "She's leading golf's youth movement," Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam wrote in the issue. "Fun watching your career, kiddo," tweeted actor Don Cheadle. "Keep crushing it. YAY!"
You're thinking: Wow.
The kid in Ko. You don't see it until after she has signed her scorecard.
In May she was in contention at the Kingsmill Championship until she double-bogeyed the par-4 12th hole in the final round. Asked about it afterward, Ko puffed out her cheeks and said, "I hit it left, and then I had to go between the trees, and I hit a tree. Then I was under the tree, and I hit the top of another tree" — and so on, like a kindergartner explaining how her kitten ate the cocktail shrimp. Proclaiming that she'd never had so many lip-outs in her life, Ko rolled her eyes and said, "I'd rather miss by a lot!"
Inside the ropes it's a different Lydia — calm, focused, imperturbable. Having her portrait taken for this article, she was asked, "What's your game face?" Ko's answer: "Poker face. Like Jason Dufner." It's a good look for a player as inexperienced and slight as Ko, who can only win by making fewer mistakes than her tournament-hardened foes. "Lydia seems very grounded and wise for being so young," says Pia Nilsson, a former Solheim Cup captain. "Her game is so simple and easy. She's more of an Annika-type player, hitting lots of fairways and greens, than a big bomber like Suzann Pettersen or Michelle Wie."
Ko's maturity was on display in San Francisco, where she birdied the 72nd hole to win by one over Stacy Lewis, the reigning Women's British Open champ. "She hit every shot she needed to hit from 13 on in," said Lewis, grappling with the possibility that her bid to remain the World No. 1 might be thwarted by a kid who gets carded at the cineplex.
You're impressed, but you're thinking: Teenagers don't win majors.
Oh, but they do! Inbee Park (2008 U.S. Women's Open), Yani Tseng (2008 LPGA Championship) and Lexi Thompson (2014 Kraft Nabisco) were all teens when they broke through at a major. Morgan Pressel was 18 when she won the 2007 Kraft Nabisco.
You're thinking: O.K., but teenagers don't win majors on a classic course like Pinehurst No. 2.
It's Monday, May 19. Ko, her mom (Tina Hyon) and her best friend on tour (Danielle Kang) have checked in at the Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst for a few days of Women's Open prep. It's Ko's second visit to the Sandhills, where Donald Ross lived most of his life and laid out several of his most challenging courses.
So, Lydia, what stands out about Pinehurst?
"Well, the beach is really near," she says, "maybe 10 minutes away. I don't get to go to the beach too often, and the last time I was there, we tried to play volleyball, and it didn't go so well. But just being able to spend time with my friends…."
You're thinking: The beach? The nearest one is 140 miles to the east!
It turns out Ko is talking about Pinehurst School, a small, private academy on the North Shore of Auckland. She is a 13th-grader there, a senior in the Kiwi system; although, strictly speaking, she's not a senior there, she's a senior here, finishing high school by way of the Internet. "The teachers have been hugely supportive," she says. Ko's college plans are up in the air—"I might go to a university in Korea" — but she has sought advice from Wie, a three-time LPGA winner who earned a degree from Stanford while moonlighting as a tour pro. "It must have been hard to do both," Ko says admiringly. "She's obviously very smart."
Noted. So, Lydia, what stands out about Pinehurst No. 2?
Ko leans forward, wide-eyed. "Those love grasses," she whispers. "They're not that lovable!" She titters and glances at her mom, who stands to the side.
"It's tricky for me," says Ko, turning serious. "I'd heard a lot about the greens, how the ball runs off on all sides. And those greens are going to be fast! It's not going to be stimp 11. It'll be stimp 12 or 13." Ko has tried to prepare by dropping balls in the greenside catchments and practicing her chip shots. But come mid-June, when the banks are shaved as close as an anchorman's chin, chipping may not be the play. "The putter may be the best option from the side," she says. Asked what it will be like to play No. 2 the week after the men play it, Ko shrugs. "The greens will be beat up; there will be pitch marks. And off the greens there will be a lot of divots."
You're thinking: Yeah, it's a dumb idea to make the women play their most prestigious tournament on a chewed-up, trampled-down golf course.
Ko recoils and utters a drawn-out "Nooooooo! To me it's really awesome, because I've never seen a PGA Tour event. I'm going out to watch on the weekend, and I'm really excited about that." Who will she follow? "Phil Mickelson, obviously. He's been my favorite for a long time. He's the short-game king." Not long ago she got to meet her hero in the flesh, at the Callaway Performance Center in Carlsbad, Calif. "I was so nervous that I was afraid to go near him," she says, "but he signed a British Open flag for me. I have that in my room in Orlando, and for a couple of tournaments I had it in my bag."
Ko's transition from world-class golfer to starstruck schoolgirl is as natural as a baby's burp. You see it again, later that afternoon, when she pulls a hoodie over her head and makes funny faces for the photographer. "See," she says, striking a glamour pose. "Me and Gaga have a lot in common."
Watching with amusement, her mom says, "You're acting like a teenager."
Ko's laughing retort: "I am a teenager!"
Let's close with a bit of trivia: All three of Ko's LPGA wins have come on courses that were new to the tour. The reason for mentioning it: Pinehurst No. 2 will be new to the tour. Ko, because of her practice visits, may actually have an advantage.
"I haven't performed as well as I'd like to in the majors," she says, exhuming an eight-tournament body of work that ranges from her worst (a 42nd, low-amateur finish at the 2013 Women's British) to her best (a runner-up at last year's Evian Championship). "If I'm disappointed, it's because I know I could have done better. I had a double bogey in each of the majors, except for the Evian. It's crucial not to make the big numbers. Sometimes the middle of the green and two putts is good."
Tiger Woods said pretty much the same thing before his first major win, at the 1997 Masters.
You're thinking: Comparisons to Tiger Woods? Really?
O.K., the comparison is not fair — to Ko. Woods was 21 and a year out of college when he won his green jacket.
"I really want to win a major," she says, "but there's still a lot of things I need to work on. So I don't expect to do it this year or any particular time. But when I do it" — her smile says sooner, rather than later — "I'll be thrilled!"
And you're thinking: So will we all, kiddo. So will we all.