LYDIA Ko is no longer the doe-eyed schoolgirl who mesmerised the world of golf through an innate ability to hit a little white ball into a four-inch cup with a minimum of fuss. But just as she shed the ‘Coke bottle’ glasses, she’s now cast off the innocence of youth with a number of unsentimental decisions.
Recent months have proven to be the most challenging in Ko’s short, but brilliant career. Since winning the Marathon Classic in July 2016, she failed to lift a trophy for more than 300 days. During this period she:
• Dumped her coach of three years David Leadbetter in favour of South African instructor Gary Gilchrist, the teacher of rival Ariya Jutanugarn
• Dismissed long-time caddie Jason Hamilton and hired Englishman Pete Godfrey as her 10th bagman since coming onto the LPGA Tour in 2014
• Switched clubmakers from Callaway Golf to PXG (Parsons Xtreme Golf) in a five-year deal reportedly worth $US10 million ($NZ14.5 million).
With so much success at an early age, it may seem peculiar as to why Ko and her team would embark upon these significant changes. But there are valid reasons for making them and the subsequent inconvenience could be worth the short-term pain despite all the perceived turbulence.
And that’s another point. It’s a perception of turmoil rather than reality. Lydia Ko still has the world at her feet.
Ko’s achievements as a teenager are phenomenal. She won 19 tournaments, including two Major championships, 12 more LPGA Tour victories, three New Zealand Women’s Opens and the 2012 Women’s NSW Open when she announced herself as a precocious 14-year-old.
Just days after her 20th birthday on April 24, Ko became just the third player to sit on top of the Women’s World Golf Rankings for 100 weeks. Lorena Ochoa held the No.1 ranking for 158 weeks while Yani Tseng held it for 109 weeks. Which makes her recent form slump all the more startling.
Former tour player Frank Nobilo says Ko has struggled with the transition between caddies and coaches. The CBS television announcer makes the point that top golfers need to be able to think clearly and not be confused.
“Clarity is why they always search and change. People will second-guess why you would change your swing,” Nobilo says. “But it’s a bit like Tiger Woods – you have to remember what the athlete is thinking. Yes, she needs stability. It seems very logical and easy to do. But it’s very hard.
“Simplicity is sometimes the hardest thing to achieve in golf. Trying to do it while running alongside your success is even more difficult.”
It was a surprise when Ko released Jason Hamilton in October 2016. Ten of Ko’s 14 career victories came with the Australian on the bag. So it will be interesting to see how her latest caddie fares. Godfrey certainly has desirable qualities. His peers voted the Englishman ‘Caddie of the Year’ in March. He’s also married to a golfer, LPGA Tour pro Jane Park.
The caddie merry-go-round has the potential to damage Ko’s squeaky-clean reputation. The reality, however, is that several of the caddies Ko used were local fill-ins or on a tryout basis while she was searching for a long-term bagman. Nevertheless, it’s not a good look to see golf’s version of the Sherpa treated like a disposal porter.
“I don’t know exactly what I want and what I need in a caddie,” Ko admitted recently. “As an amateur, you’ve always got a friend or my mum caddied for me a lot in the big amateur championships. Especially my rookie year [as a pro], I was learning and figuring out what works best for me. In a day, I spend a lot of it with my caddie. I think people just think caddies give you a number, but I think it’s more than that.”
Ex-caddie Gary Matthews, who worked for Ko at nine tournaments this year, described her as a lovely person. But he made the following observation to Golf Digest’s Tim Rosaforte: “I wish her the best, but she’s gone through so many caddies, she needs to wake up on caddie-player relationships … Otherwise she’ll just keep doing it.”
Form Slump The Source Of Scrutiny
The downside of being in the spotlight is that every little decision Ko makes is amplified – whether it involves coaches, caddies or equipment manufacturers. What has brought scrutiny upon Ko is the diminishing number of good results by an incumbent No.1-ranked player.
Ko won five LPGA Tour events in 2015 and four more in 2016 to establish a commanding lead at the top of the world ranking. But it’s been a relatively lean period since her fourth victory last season at the Marathon Classic in July 2016. Apart from a silver medal at the Rio Olympics, she recorded only a couple of top-five finishes in her next 19 LPGA events.
Through the first third of the 2017 LPGA season, Ko’s best result was a tie for second at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii. She sat 14th on the LPGA moneylist when she took a three-week break from competition at the end of May, allowing Jutanugarn to usurp her as world No.1.
After changing equipment makers, most players would be delighted with a form line that reads: T-46, T-8, T-9, T-8, CUT, T-11, T-2, WDC, T-9, T-10. But Ko is a victim of her own high standards.
Analysing her statistics, Ko has improved substantially in driving accuracy and greens in regulation. She had found 80.44 per cent of fairways (up from 70.88) and hit 73.61 per cent of greens (up from 70.39).
Her biggest area of concern would be on the greens. Last year Ko led the tour in putts per GIR with an average of 1.71. This year she had slipped to 14th (1.75). Hence, her scoring average had also declined to 10th (69.78) after being second best on tour (69.60).
Little wonder she went back and forth between an Odyssey winged putter and Odyssey 2-Ball putter before making her fourth putter switch of the season when she put a PXG Bat Attack winged putter into the bag. As far as technique, Ko has gone from left-hand low on short putts to using a conventional grip on all putts.
Tiger Woods faced intense scrutiny in 1998 after choosing to rebuild the swing that won the 1997 Masters by a staggering 12 strokes. He also sacked a reliable caddie (Fluff Cowan), dealt with the transition to new equipment (Nike) and had his time taken up by an increasing number of endorsement contracts.
Woods sacrificed short-term results for long-term success. After the swing changes kicked into gear, he won 32 tournaments on the US PGA Tour in five seasons (1999-2003). At his awesome best, Woods won seven of 11 Majors from the 1999 US PGA Championship through to the 2002 US Open.
By taking a three-week hiatus when her world No.1 ranking was under threat, it’s evident that Ko wasn’t overly concerned about protecting her standing as the game’s best player. No doubt she wanted to find some better form and be fresh for the year’s remaining Majors as well as the McKayson New Zealand Women’s Open in her hometown of Auckland. Her focus is the longer term.
Tougher Competition A Catalyst For Change
The profile of Tiger Woods has led to better athletes competing at the professional level and this is particularly evident in women’s golf where players under the age of 25 rule the roost. The talent pool has grown as the media coverage and financial rewards made golf a more appealing and accessible career path for women outside America than it was a couple of decades ago.
You can mount a convincing argument the top-end talent on the LPGA Tour has never been deeper than it is right now. And Lydia Ko would be aware of the increased threat of competition.
Jutanugarn, the reigning LPGA Player of the Year, won five times last year. The 21-year-old Thai has displayed an amazing capacity to overpower golf courses without using a driver in a manner similar to England’s Laura Davies.
American prodigy Lexi Thompson is another dynamic athlete who oozes power. The 22-year-old already has eight LPGA titles. At 183cm, with an 18cm height advantage over Ko, Thompson possesses long levers to pound the ball huge distances.
On 2016 driving statistics, Ko averaged 246.7 yards off the tee and conceded 30.7 yards per drive to Thompson (277.4 yards). Ko has added half a yard this year and so she’s still at a significant disadvantage to the likes of Thompson on approach shots into the green. On a par 4, it’s easier to set up a birdie opportunity with a wedge in a player’s hands rather than a 6 or 7-iron.
Every year a couple of enormously talented golfers emerge from Korea. It’s no longer a surprise to see an unknown KLPGA player in contention – and winning – at the Major championships. They add to a large contingent of Koreans on the LPGA Tour led by Inbee Park, So Yeon Ryu and In Gee Chun.
The 19-year-old Canadian Brooke Henderson is another player expected to challenge for top spot over the next decade. And those in the know at Golf Australia believe Minjee Lee and Su Oh, both 11 months older than Ko, will rival the Kiwi once their games mature. Like Henderson, they too reached No.1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.
And on any given week, one of the best LPGA players is likely to have an outstanding week with the putter.
Ko and her camp would realise she must elevate her game to another level if she wants to have sustained success during her prime years from 20 to 30. As the old adage goes: if you’re standing still then you’re going backwards.
And what of the allegation that Ko’s parents and sister have too much say on Lydia? Media matriarch Kathie Shearer has observed Ko at close quarters during her frequent visits to the media centre. She says it can be a bit of a double-edged sword.
“I think it’s wonderful. You’re never alone, you’ve always got somebody to speak to. And they’re always on your side.”
Shearer is adamant that Ko the player has a strong voice and is calling the shots. However, she says the family would have a strong influence.
“I just think Lydia’s circle has become bigger and bigger … I love all of that, but I think she would try to please them.”
Lessons From Annika
Annika Sorenstam faced a challenge to her authority as the world’s best player not dissimilar to what Ko faces. Sorenstam had won 23 LPGA tournaments by the age of 30. But along came Karrie Webb and supplanted her as the queen of women’s golf when the Australian won 13 LPGA titles between 1999 and 2000.
Webb’s sublime play established a new benchmark and challenged the Swede to respond. Sorenstam lifted, raising the bar to another level as she won a phenomenal 43 LPGA events over the next five seasons (2001-2005).
As good as she’s been, Ko is still a long way from replicating the sustained dominance that Sorenstam had when she was an intimidating presence in women’s golf. If Ko had just kept on doing what she did as a teenager, then it’s unlikely she would be able to reach those dizzying heights that Sorenstam scaled.
Perth-based Kiwi Michael Long has observed Ko from afar. As such, he is a little detached from the patriotic fervour back at home that surrounds the Kiwi-girl-turned-global-superstar.
“It is a hard game. You are the boss. You are your marketing manager. You are your captain. You are the product. You are everything,” Long says.
“It’s not easy with the Internet and with [modern] media. Sometimes you try to make a few changes and everyone’s got a say. And it’s so hard to blank everything out and just get on and do what you’re doing.
“If there’s anything I would say to Lydia, it’s ‘Keep on believing. Keep on doing what you’re doing.’ She’s done it and she knows how to do it.
“OK, she may be having a few issues at the moment. But she’ll work it out. You don’t get to No.1 by accident.”
With all the scrutiny she has faced over the past year, Lydia Ko would be under no illusion about this point: the price of potential is the burden of expectation.
The easiest way to stop the constant scrutiny and speculation is for her to win. And win often. Easier said than done.