What's going on with Lydia Ko's golf?

by Paul Thomas / 19 April, 2018
Lydia Ko: her behaviour invites the suspicion of wilfulness. Photo/Getty Images

Lydia Ko: her behaviour invites the suspicion of wilfulness. Photo/Getty Images

Lydia Ko’s form slump prompts speculation about her caddie turnover and the influence of her parents on every aspect of her life.

At first as an amateur and after she turned professional in 2013, Lydia Ko took the golf world by storm. But she hasn’t won a tournament since July 2016. Less than a year ago, she was the top-ranked woman golfer; now she’s 15th. Her star has certainly dimmed somewhat, but there may be a tendency to forget how brightly it shone and how much she has already achieved:
  • In 2012, aged 14 years and nine months, Ko became the youngest person to win a professional golf tournament.
  • She was the world’s top-ranked woman amateur golfer for 130 weeks and is the only amateur to win two Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour events.
  • In February 2015, aged 17 years and nine months, she became the youngest player of either gender to be ranked No 1 in the world, a position she held for 104 weeks.
  • Ko became the youngest woman to win a major championship and the youngest player – and only New Zealander – to win two majors.
  • She was the first player in LPGA history to win at least US$2 million in each of her first three full years on the tour.
  • Between February 2012 and March 2017, she missed just one cut in 93 LPGA tour events.
  • By the time she was 19, Ko had won 14 LPGA tournaments. Only 38 players in history have won more.
  • In April 2014, aged 16, she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.

I could go on. Now, however, the rise-and-rise narrative is threatening to become rise-and-fall.

What happened? Some ascribe her form slump to her predilection for changing coaches and caddies; others believe her parents exert too much influence. You could consolidate these theories into the proposition that the constant changes to her support staff are a consequence of her parents’ undue influence.

David Leadbetter. Photo/Getty Images

In late 2016, Ko shocked the golfing world by cutting ties with legendary coach David Leadbetter. Their three-year association had delivered 12 LPGA victories, including two majors. Leadbetter’s parting shot was carefully aimed: “[Ko’s parents] tell her when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to practise and what to practise. And they expect her to win every tournament … But they are naive about golf. And at some point they’ve got to let the bird fly from the nest. I would often think, ‘It’s not easy coaching three people.’”

Leadbetter’s stature ensured this criticism was widely circulated. However, the odd commentator pointed out that Ko was going off the boil before the split and suggested that perhaps her struggles stemmed from his strategy of changing a swing that had served her exceedingly well. It also seems fair to assume that when Ko was taking the world by storm, her parents were having a big say, too.

Her caddie turnover is remarkable: she’s had 15 in five years, although admittedly seven were discarded in 2014 when things were on the up and up. Nevertheless, it invites the suspicion of wilfulness – according to Leadbetter, the timing of the sacking of Jason Hamilton, who’d carried Ko’s bag for 10 victories in two years, “didn’t make any sense” – and a tendency to look for a scapegoat when things don’t go according to plan.

When Ko replaced South African Gary Matthews in 2017, he complained about Team Ko’s lack of communication and suggested she had a lot to learn about the golfer-caddie relationship. His replacement, Peter Godfrey, lasted less than a year. 

Michael Campbell with the US Open trophy, 2005. Photo/Getty

The mighty fallen

Star golfers’ careers can decline spectacularly.

Lydia Ko has declared her intention to retire at 30 and become a psychologist. Although no one’s suggesting her career’s in crisis, let alone that, at the ripe old age of 21 this month, she’s over the hill, it’s not unknown for golfers who’ve scaled the heights to undergo sudden, inexplicable decline.

Michael Campbell is one of only two New Zealand men – the other being Sir Bob Charles – to win a major. In 2005, he won the US Open, beating Tiger Woods by two shots. A few months later, he won the HSBC World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth, England, earning a cool million (pounds that is) in the process. He retired in 2015, having failed to win another tournament, but is reportedly planning to join the seniors circuit when he turns 50 next year.

In 2002, Palmerston North’s Craig Perks, ranked 203rd in the world, won the Players Championship at TPC at Sawgrass in Florida, the so-called “fifth major” and at that time boasting the highest prize fund in golf. He was New Zealand’s sportsman of the year. Perks never won again and retired after making only one cut in 2006/07.

In the late 1990s, Americans David Duval and Tiger Woods vied to be the No 1 player and top money-earner. Between October 1997 and April 1999, Duval won 11 tournaments, including the Players. In 2001, he won the British Open, his only major, and a tournament in Japan. He hasn’t won since.

In 1991, Australian Ian Baker-Finch won the British Open and entered the top-10 rankings. Seemingly on the verge of great things, he suffered a crisis of confidence that became catastrophic. In 1995/96, he missed the cut and withdrew from or was disqualified in all 29 tournaments he entered. He retired after shooting 92 in the opening round of the 1997 British Open.

In regard to Ko’s future, the most pertinent comparison may be with South Korean Se Ri Pak, whom a golf writer credited with changing the face of golf “more than Tiger Woods”. Pak was the only Korean on the LPGA tour in the late 1990s; 10 years later, there were 45. Today, four of the top seven and nine of the top 20 woman golfers are Korean. Pak is often cited as a prime example of “early success, early burnout” syndrome. She won 21 of her 25 LPGA titles between 1998 – when she was 20 – and 2003. From 2010 to 2016, she played in 95 LPGA events. She won one.

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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