Teen golfer Lydia Ko now playing for dough

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NAPLES, FLA. (AP) - Lydia Ko didn’t need to wait for the prize money to be distributed to realize why this week is so different on the LPGA Tour.

She was reminded in the airport by a question she has heard dozens of times. The 16-year-old from New Zealand was clearing customs when the agent asked her purpose for coming to the United States. She told him she was playing in a golf tournament.

“He says, `Are you a professional?’ I was like, `Yeah, I am.’ So that was the biggest thing,” Ko said Wednesday. “I never said that before.”

When the agent inquired about her game, the teenager with maturity beyond her years mentioned that she was No. 5 in the women’s world ranking.

Clearly, this is no ordinary pro debut.

Not since Michelle Wie played her first LPGA Tour event as a pro _ in 2005, just two days after she turned 16 _ has there been so much buzz about a newcomer. But their age and South Korean heritage are about all they have in common.

Wie already had signed lucrative endorsement deals with Nike and Sony. Ko doesn’t even have an agent, much less a corporate contract. She wore a cap promoting golf in New Zealand for a news conference that was carried live by Golf Channel.

The biggest difference is that Ko is already proven to be one of the top players in women’s golf. She won the Canadian Women’s Open against a strong field last year at 15, making her the youngest winner of an LPGA event. She defended her title this summer, and she was runner-up in an LPGA major at the Evian Championship. Ko also has two other professional wins in Australia and New Zealand.

“I don’t think Lydia has anything to prove,” Suzann Pettersen said. “She’s already proven she’s good enough to be out there on a regular basis.”

LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan waived the minimum age requirement of 18 for Ko. The last player given that waiver was Lexi Thompson, who now is 18 and won last week in Mexico for the second time this year.

Ko starts her pro career Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club with Wie (now 24) and 19-year-old Jessica Korda.

She also is playing a tournament in Taiwan to close out her year, and then she will play a full schedule mixed in with high school. She has one more year remaining, though her mother has not ruled out going to college while playing the tour, much as Wie did at Stanford.

For now, she is testing different equipment and trying to decide her best path with management and endorsements. She is in no rush. One other decision is where to live while playing the LPGA Tour. It’s a 16-hour commute from New Zealand.

Just her luck, she met one of her favorite players, Phil Mickelson, while in San Diego to test equipment.

“We’re looking Florida and Texas and a couple other places there’s no income tax,” Ko said. “Phil mentioned that one of the biggest mistakes was staying after college where the taxes are quite high. So I’m trying to stay in a low place. I don’t have any money yet.”

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