She was the youngest player to ever win a major tournament, at the age of 14 she was thrown into the world spotlight and for the next eight years she has reached the heights of the number one player in women’s golf and by the end of 2016 was on track to be the golfer of the decade.
Fast-forward to the end of 2019 and to many, Lydia Ko’s world has come crashing down. She has won just one tournament in three years, changed her coach many times, her swing, her equipment, even her look and ends the decade ranked 40 in the world after dropping 26 spots in just the past 12 months.
But while many people, I mean most people, have an opinion on what’s gone wrong with Lydia Ko or what she needs to do to improve, Ko keeps working hard to try and build on her game, bring it back to where it was and keep smiling, in the face of a backlash that very few other Kiwi sportspeople have ever faced.
2019 Comes to an End
2019 was coming quickly to an end, Ko had just completed her final official tournament of the year, tied for 53rd place at the season-ending CME Championships in Florida. She hadn’t beaten many home but it wasn’t the time for her to pack up her bag and balls and head for home. Ko took the long flight from Florida to Korea to make good on a commitment to play in a South Korean Team Competition as a finale for her year.
The Orange Life Champions Trophy Inbee Park Invitational is a team event that pits members of the LPGA against those of the KLPGA in a three-day competition at Blue One Diners CC just outside the town of Gyeongju. As Korean golf is booming, many of those that played are world-ranked players, in fact, many are ranked higher than Ko.
Lydia Ko combined with world number nine Minjee Lee for a successful 3 and 1 victory in the fourball matches for the LGPA while on the final day Ko was one of the only victories that the LGPA had in the singles, but it wasn’t enough to stop the KLPGA from clinching victory across the three days.
Speaking with NZ Golf Magazine while on transit to Korea, Lydia remained stoic and positive about her future and quite energised about the season break ahead.
“I’m looking forward to some time off and spending time with family and friends,” Ko said as she prepared for her last competition.
But she was also quite grounded about the issues she had during the year and what she needs to do improve the situation for 2020.
“I feel like I haven’t been able to put four solid rounds together, where somedays the short game is there but the ball striking is not and vice versa.
“There is so much amazing talent in women’s golf, and year in year out consistency is becoming more and more of an important factor to being in contention.”
The South Korean-born golfer has helped inspire a new generation of precocious talents – there are 13 South Korean players in the top 30.
But it has been a bone of contention from all corners of the golfing community about what Ko must change to take her back to the top of the game. Some say she needs to improve her swing, others suggest she’s not strong enough and her weight loss has reduced her power game.
Even former coach David Leadbetter, who previously guided Ko to 17 LGPA tournament victories in three years has said she needed to take an extended break from the game and that it was time her parents cut their links to allow her to grow into a new woman.
“I think her parents need to let her go and do her own thing, she is 22 years of age now and she can control her own career,” Leadbetter speaking with RNZ.
“Unfortunately it happens, parents think they know better, she’s not a twelve-year-old any more, they need to let her go, let her fly, leave the nest so to speak and find her own way.
“I’m angry and I’m sad because really I know what she’s capable of doing and to see her play like this is just very sad.”
Ko has only one tournament victory since Leadbetter was replaced as coach.
And Ko herself has been direct in her calling out of the naysayers and those that may think they know what’s best.
“Thank you to the haters for bringing out the strength in me, and pushing me to become the best I possibly can be… and thank you to all those that have supported me at my highest and lowest, and making all the bumps along the way feel like a smooth ride! No matter what anyone says, all we can do is what’s best for ourselves, and most importantly what makes us happy,” she wrote on Instagram.
On to 2020
For 2020, Ko is looking to do more of the same and to sharpen up her game in preparation for some big events.
“I’m going to keep working hard with my coach to become more confident in my ball striking and work on sharpening my short game too,” she explained.
“I would love to be back more in the top tens and more in contention and also to represent New Zealand again in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
Currently, Ko has the only allocated place for New Zealand at the Olympics, and playing for her country is something she is very passionate. She won the silver medal in women’s golf at the 2016 Olympic Games.
In 2019 Ko was presented with a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to golf, something that ranked as a highlight for her career.
“The biggest highlight off the golf course was being honoured as a member of the New Zealand order of merit.”
“Incredibly humbled to have become a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. This is more than anything I could have ever dreamed of, and a day I’ll never forget! Thank you to my family, friends, team, and supporters.” Ko stated on Instagram.
Her on course thrill of the year was a hole in one she achieved at the US Open
“Getting my second hole in one in a competitive round at the US Open, was a huge thrill.”
Whatever happens to Ko in 2020, the eyes of the golf world, and New Zealand, will be watching to see if that shining light that we all fell in love with can flicker again and take her back to the top.