There are few more guaranteed ways to get the sports world bubbling with excitement than the introduction of a young sports prodigy. The headlines write themselves when a teenager arrives on the scene and begins to shake a sport from the inside. Everyone who witnesses the uprising of a sporting great can’t help but be inspired by what they see and are taken back to a time in their lives when nothing seemed impossible.
When Lydia Ko burst onto the scene, the world didn’t have time to assess what they were witnessing as the New Zealand golfer went from one extraordinary accomplishment to the other. Her rise up the ranks from young teenage prodigy to the number one golfer in the world happened quicker than it takes most teenagers to complete their driver’s license.
The rate at which her success came was simply inconceivable and to some extent, would have past many by. In a cruel twist of fate and painful illustration of how human beings sometimes enjoy a fall rather than a rise to the top, Ko is now being spoken about more because her world domination has hit its first roadblock.
A winless 2017 and a slide down the world rankings has prompted the golfing world to ask what has gone wrong with Ko? Some of the explanations and reasoning behind Ko’s dip in form carry more credibility than most, but in truth, a lot of it is noise. By the New Zealanders high standards and compared to her early success achieved on tour, this current stretch of form isn’t ideal, but surely it’s par for the course?
Ko’s early years
You often have to pinch yourself when writing about Ko’s early years for more than one reason. Taking a retrospective look back on a golfer’s career and discussing the early years often means going a fair way back in time. Looking back on the first win of Kathy Whitworth’s career, you would have to go back to 1962. Whitworth is the record holder for the most wins on the LPGA Tour with 88. If Whitworth had won her first event at the same age as Ko did at 14, one would have to go even further back to 1953.
These things are all relative about the timing of the writing in history but the point stands that Ko has achieved her success so quickly and is still not even able to legally buy alcohol in some states in America. To go back to Ko’s early years, you just have to make the short trip back to 2011 when she was 14 years old.
It was at this time that Ko won New South Wales Women’s Open on the Australian LPGA Tour. Accomplishing this at the time meant she was the youngest player to win a professional tournament. Winning the Canadian Women’s Open followed after that at age 15 and meant she would become the youngest winner of an LPGA event. At this stage, Ko had the ambition to win her country’s national open and did just that when she won the New Zealand Women’s Open and by doing so if you haven’t figured it out yet, became the youngest player to win a Ladies European Tour event.
What Ko had won before turning 16 would be enough for most retiring players to look back on and declare their career a roaring success, but this is Lydia Ko we are talking about. The teenage sensation would return to Canada the year after aged 16 to defend her title and by doing so became the youngest player to win two LPGA events.
This unheralded success led Time Magazine to name her among the 100 Most Influential People in the world. When most other teenagers were trying their best to avoid the pitfalls of peer pressure, Ko was being deemed influential enough to have an impact on people from every walk of life from the around the world. It was most certainly a case of if you’re good enough you’re old enough for Ko.
Age is just a number
With half of her teenage years remaining, Ko had done more than most professionals do over their entire careers. She turned 17 and the accolades didn’t stop as she won the LPGA Rookie of the Year award and in true Lydia Ko style, was the youngest ever to do so. What followed next was Ko setting a record that no matter what way you look at it, doesn’t seem like it will ever be broken.
On the first of February 2015, Ko became the number one ranked women’s golfer in the world. At 17 Ko became the youngest in both the men and women’s game to ever do so. It just isn’t conceivable that Ko’s record will ever be bettered. The conventional structures that are followed when turning professional mean a player doesn’t normally make their debut on a tour until their early twenties. If you’re a hard-working player you may get into the top 20 in the world by the time you are 25. Not Lydia Ko; at 17 she was the best in the world and showed no signs of letting up.
Ko would win her first two majors at 18 years old and by this stage had 10 wins on the LPGA Tour. Needless to say, at 18, this was a new record. Nancy Lopez was the previous record holder for the youngest player to win 10 events on the LPGA Tour; Ko beat Lopez’s record by three and half years.
All the success during her eighteenth year of being alive meant she also won the LPGA Tour money title. The introduction of golf back at the Olympics was something that interested Ko and at 19 she made her way to Rio de Janeiro to see if she could add an Olympic medal to her trophy cabinet. Ko won a silver medal for team New Zealand but that would be Ko’s last bit of success until the present day, as her unprecedented early achievements have slowed down. Her last win on the LPGA Tour would be in July 2016, one month before the Olympics.
A winless 2017
You would have made a lot of money had you predicted Lydia Ko would go an entire year without winning after the display she put on between 2011 and 2016. The winless streak the 14 time LPGA winner has gone through has taken everyone by surprise. Is there a common denominator which could explain her winless run?
In January 2017 Ko switched to an equipment deal with PXG worth $14.5 million dollars. Her previous supplier was Callaway and whilst using those clubs, she went on to achieve all the success she did. It’s hard to begrudge a player the opportunity to sign a lucrative deal with another sponsor to use their clubs even if they were achieving a healthy amount of success with their previous service providers.
All of the hard work Ko had put into her golf throughout her life was rewarded when PXG came knocking with a contract that would break the bank. Switching to a new equipment deal is not unusual in golf and is common in both the women’s game as well as the men’s. The most famous instance being when Rory McIlroy signed with Nike back in 2013, which would earn the Northern Irishman around £156m over 10 years. Just like Ko is doing now, McIlroy went through a win drought and questions over his decision to change clubs arose.
By McIlroy’s own admission, it took him a year to get used to his new clubs as he finally won again in early 2014 after he landed the Australian Open. That was followed by two majors in the same year and any talk of his new equipment deal hindering him was swiftly put to bed. There is no bigger player in the game with a future as bright as McIlroy now and adding more majors to his tally in 2018 is a very real possibility as Sportsbet has the Northern Irishman at 11/1 to win the Open. Like McIlroy, could Ko just be undergoing a transition phase where she gets acquainted with her new sticks?
Changes on and off the course
The lack of victories in 2017 had Ko changing her team on and off the course. The New Zealander called time on her partnership with coach Gary Gilchrist and caddie Peter Godfrey. The duo has been replaced with Ted Oh and Johnny Scott respectively. Swing coach Oh will be the third coach she has used since turning pro in 2013 and Godfrey will be the 11th caddie Ko has employed during her five years on tour.
Looking at the number of times Ko has opted for change during her short but very successful career one does pick up on a pattern. As soon as the results aren’t what she would have expected, those around her are given their marching orders. The crucial change was in 2016 when Ko saw fit to end the incredibly successful relationship she had with David Leadbetter who had been her coach for all of her 14 tour wins as well as two majors.
Longtime caddie Jason Hamilton was also dismissed in October 2016 after having carried the bag for Ko during ten tour wins and both majors. Tiger Woods’ ex-caddie Steve Williams, who is also a New Zealander, suggested Ko had prematurely hit the panic button during a slump in form by terminating the services of Hamilton.
Leadbetter’s comments after being let go by Ko were particularly revealing as he found dealing with Ko’s parent overbearing influence was extremely strenuous. To become the world’s number one golfer at the age of 17 means, along with an incredible amount of skill, you probably also have parents that want the accolades just as badly. Leadbetter did warn that the interference from her parents could hurt Ko’s long-term career prospects.
Lydia Ko seems to be consumed by her inability to win at the moment. The effects are having a drastic effect on her fortunes on the course as she looks to clear out the deadwood in order to find that winning feeling again. It seems obvious from an onlooker’s perspective that the changes she has made have taken her further away from her goal of winning. Hindsight would also back that up and the constant shuffling around of her backroom staff is undoubtedly causing a distraction.
The only change she hasn’t made yet is how much of an influence her parents have on her career. The time has probably come for her to cut the apron strings and rely on her own instincts as well as the best minds in golf to help her get back in the winners’ circle.
The positive impact Lydia Ko’s parents have had on her career far outweighs the negative and their support has been invaluable during this time. There aren’t many who have made $8m before their 21st birthday and still have any sense of wellbeing or grounding left. Ko’s parents have helped her remained focused and have shielded her during the time she would have needed it the most.
In the past, Ko has admitted being too reliant on her parents and the need to make her own decisions and be independent. As it stands, she may have gone as far as she can with her parents in terms of them advising her on matters regarding her career.
Lydia Ko is a star and will shine again sooner rather than later. She is still the same golfer that achieved world domination whilst in her teens. All the changes she is making now will lead to her becoming more aware of what she wants and what the best way of getting it is. After all, she’s only 20; it could take her five years to win again and she would still be ahead of the game. As soon as Ko finds stability with regards to those helping her she will add to the 14 titles she already has.