Sorting through the stats that detail Lydia Ko’s career reveals the complicated chemistry of championship golf. Nothing drastic jumps out. It’s difficult to say that someone sitting at No. 16 in the Rolex Rankings is in a slump. But the gentle decline in her performance indicates something is askew; that Ko has fallen to the wrong side of the fine line between winning and contending.
As she marked her 22nd birthday on April 24, the day before the start of last week’s Hugel-Air Premia LA Open, Ko assessed her game with the same even-keeled approach with which she handles all aspects of her life. If there is frustration, confusion or doubt it is well disguised behind a polite, polished demeanor.
However, equally fine is the line between acceptance and realism, even though the truth of the matter could well be that the picture is no clearer from the inside than it is from out. It’s not so much that Ko is searching for answers as she is trying to figure out which questions to ask.
There was a dichotomy to her defense of the Mediheal Championship in San Francisco. First she helped unveil a plaque on the 18th fairway at Lake Merced at the spot where the then 21-year-old launched a 3-wood over a tree to within 2 feet of the hole for an eagle to win her first event in more than a year.
Just a few minutes after the plaque unveiling, Ko confirmed that she and her most recent coach, Ted Oh, have gone their separate ways. Ko told Golf Channel, “We just mutually decided it was time. We ended on good terms. I have a lot to thank Ted for. He gave me a really solid blueprint, simplifying my swing. I think he showed me a more efficient way and I thank him for that.”
“There is just an immense amount of talent out here now and winning is just so hard.” – Lydia Ko
She said she has no plans to bring in a new coach. Less than a week before announcing the split, Ko told me, “I’ve been playing pretty consistent except for the ANA and Australia.” She had five top-20 finishes marred by a T44 at the ANA Inspiration and a missed cut in the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.
“There is just an immense amount of talent out here now and winning is just so hard,” she said in an accurate assessment of the state of the LPGA compared to when she was a rookie in 2014. “I have to focus on concentrating and stay positive and simplify things.”
Simplifying things seems to be a tougher task for Ko than meets the eye. Oh was her fourth coach since she was the top female in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and the winner of two professional events by age 15. She has changed coaches, caddies, clubs and, eventually, her body, losing a significant amount of weight since she burst onto the scene as a 14-year-old.
Ko’s career has been all about breaking records, usually those that begin with the words “youngest ever.” In February 2015, she reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings at 17 years, 9 months and 7 days old. Later that year, she won a major – the Evian Championship – at 18 years, 4 months and 20 days old. At the 2016 ANA she was the youngest with two LPGA majors and that summer won a silver medal at the Olympic Games.
During that amazing stretch from 2012, when she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open on the LPGA as a non-member, becoming the youngest tour winner, through 2016, Ko missed only one cut, was the 2014 Rolex Rookie of the Year and the 2015 Rolex Player of the Year and won 14 LPGA tournaments, including two majors.
The stats that jump out are that, while never long off the tee and really not all that accurate with the driver, Ko has always hit a lot of greens and made a ton of putts. In 2015, she was No. 60 in driving distance, No. 43 in driving accuracy, No. 2 in greens in regulation and No. 2 in putts per GIR.
Since the Marathon Classic in July 2016, however, she has missed seven cuts and won only once – the 2018 Mediheal Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club in San Francisco, where she defends her title this week.
This year, she is No. 125 in driving distance, No. 87 in driving accuracy, No. 54 in GIR and No. 21 in putts per GIR. Last year, those numbers were 134-107-24-16.
Her tumble down the driving-distance rank stems from the fact that the tour has gotten longer, not that she’s gotten shorter. From 2014 through 2018, No. 20 in driving distance increased from 257.603 yards to 263.850 yards. This year it is at 273.972 yards. That number will likely decrease as statistics from Country Club of Charleston, where the U.S. Women’s Open will be contested, Hazeltine National, site of this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and other spots where the fairways are narrower and the rough higher, are added. Still, playing from farther away puts pressure on the rest of Ko’s game.
Certainly, there is no better place for Ko to get back to winning than Lake Merced where, in addition to winning the Mediheal last year, she captured the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in both 2014 and ’15 and made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior in 2012, a couple weeks before winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“I’m super excited about going back,” Ko said. “I’ve had a special feeling about the place going back to when I played the U.S. (Girls’) Juniors there. It’s good to go to a place where you have good memories.”
Sometimes it is all about remembering. Sometimes it is all about going back. Sometimes the difference between contending and winning is as subtle as feeling you are in the right place, that you are where you are supposed to be. That could be the feeling Lydia Ko needs to find again and Lake Merced seems like a good place to look for it.
Lydia Ko lines up a putt during the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek. Photo: Darren Carroll, Copyright USGA.
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