NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko didn't look any different in her first LPGA Tour event as a pro. The 16-year-old wore a golf shirt promoting golf in New Zealand, untucked over white shorts, her bookish glasses under the cap, and nothing about her demeanor that indicates so much as a pulse.
She didn't feel any differently, either. Not after a double bogey on the third hole, missing what amounts to a tap-in that gave her a three-putt bogey on the seventh hole, or any of the four birdies that followed in her round of 1-under 71 in the LPGA Titleholders.
"Just normal," Ko said. "I didn't feel too odd or special or slow or whatever today. That actually surprised me. I thought I would be much more nervous. And actually, one of the good things was I wasn't thinking about any money or related stuff. I just tried to play my game, which was obviously very helpful."
It was a slow start and a strong finish, quite the opposite of Sandra Gal, who made six birdies on the opening six holes and wound up with an 8-under 64. Gal had a one-shot lead over Rebecca Lee-Bentham of Canada, who made six birdies on the back nine at Tiburon Golf Club for a 65.
The LPGA Tour grouped players for the opening round of its season-ending tournament with a theme.
The top three players in the world and on the LPGA money list — Inbee Park, Suzann Pettersen and Stacy Lewis — were in the final group. Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr were in the same group. They have combined for 84 victories on the LPGA Tour, although Kerr found another theme — "$47 million," she told her colleagues, referring to career earnings (it's actually closer to $45 million, but who's counting?)
In between were Ko, Michelle Wie and Jessica Korda.
Not since Wie has there been so much attention on a teenager making her pro debut. Wie played with Korda when she turned pro.
Wie couldn't help but think of that day in October 2005 at Bighorn Golf Club — about two weeks after she turned 16 — when she started shaking after being announced on the first tee, hit a thin 3-wood and threw her hands in the air in mock celebration when it found the fairway.
"There were definitely flashbacks to when I hit," Wie said. "She played great today. She looked calm — a lot calmer than I looked."
Ko can only hope for a better outcome.
Wie tied for fourth in her pro debut, but she didn't get the $53,126 because LPGA Tour officials determined she had taken a penalty drop in the wrong spot. She was disqualified for signing for the wrong score.
Wie said she told Ko about her opening tee shot as a pro. The three of them walked together off the second tee, and the conversation between Ko and Wie turned to their first meeting with Phil Mickelson, and some of the amazing shots Lefty has hit.
It was a relaxing atmosphere that could have turned dour if Ko had not kept her composure.
Her round took a bad turn early on the third hole.
Ko pulled her tee shot through a waste area of coquina pebbles and just into the pine straw. She tried to play a draw toward the right side of the green, but was distracted when her club clipped a branch at the top of her swing, and her foot slipped. She didn't get out of the waste area, and then took two more shots to reach the green and made a 4-footer for double bogey.
"I think I was a bit too ambitious," she said. "A 7-iron down the right side would have given me more than an opportunity to make up-and-down for par."
She turned a birdie chance into a shocking bogey on No. 7 with a three-putt from just inside 15 feet, missing a 2-footer for par when she tried to jam it into the back of the hole. That put her at 3-over through seven holes, as Gal was making birdie on the other side of the course on every hole.
"My birdie on 8 definitely helped," she said. "It kind of came in from the back of the hole, which was quite interesting. I thought I had missed it. I gave myself opportunities, and par is sometimes good. All I can do is just set up birdie putts, and then some will go in and some won't."
They were dropping for Gal. She shot to the top of the leaderboard, settled into a string of pars, and then had a big finish. Unlike the teenager, Gal was thinking about money, or at least the breakdown. The prize distribution from the $2 million purse is heavy at the top — $700,000 for first place, while second place pays just over $139,000 and third place is about $100,000.
"I thought this tournament was a little different than the other ones, so I thought, 'I'm just going to be really aggressive and just go for everything,' because really all you want to do is win here," Gal said. "Any other place it doesn't really matter that much. So that's kind of the mindset I had and I think that really helped me, and I just kept rolling in putts. So that was kind of fun."