To those who didn’t know her, the moment seemed extraordinary, the kind of thing you tell your buddies for weeks and relay to your eye-rolling grandkids for years.
In the middle of January, 21-year-old Lydia Ko entered the final round of the LPGA’s inaugural Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions tied for the lead, a position from which she almost always had prevailed. No LPGA player with 10 or more victories had fewer blown third-round leads than Lydia. And this one would have been especially sweet. In the first event of her sixth season on tour, and almost seven years since she became the youngest winner of an LPGA Tour event at the ripe old age of 15 years and 4 months, Ko could have sent a message that cold Sunday afternoon in Orlando, Fla.:
“I’m back, baby.”
The LPGA Mediheal Championship outside San Francisco last April had been Ko’s only victory in two and a half years, part of a career roller coaster that had produced 15 LPGA wins, two major titles, and a slew of “youngest-ever” records. She went in the record books alongside the likes of Young Tom Morris and Tiger Woods, all before she was old enough to legally buy a drink. Then she hit a rough patch in which she drove it shorter and more crooked, a crushing combination for anyone making a living in the game. Ko tumbled from a solid No. 1 in the world (at age 17, the youngest person – man or woman – to reach that mark) down to 18th.
Her victory in the Bay Area last year brought tears, a first for Ko. Had she closed out a victory earlier this month at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, she might have danced her way to the scoring tent.
But she didn’t win. A slew of well-struck putts failed to fall. And on the back nine, when she tried to step on one tee shot to clear a bunker, she snap-hooked it into a jungle and lost her ball.
“Seeing my (provisional) drive, I should have just hit a normal one and not tried to bust one because I could still get over (the bunker) and get home (in) two,” Ko said afterward. “I thought I needed to hit it really hard to carry the bunker. At the end of the day, it was unnecessary. I hit my provisional (ball) my normal speed and it carried the bunker plenty. Then I hit a normal 3-wood and it went on the green. I was like, ‘Well that was stupid.’ But, hey, you’re always going to have some of these failures along the way. It’s good to know I can carry a bunker that’s 245 (out) at least.”
With virtually every shot broadcast on network television that Sunday, she totaled three bogeys and two double bogeys on her way to 77 – a jarring score from a great player.
Then came the extraordinary.
Immediately after signing her scorecard, Ko autographed balls for all the volunteers from her group. Seconds later, realizing that tournament winner Eun-Hee Ji and celebrity winner John Smoltz were about to be engulfed by media, Ko called to them both. “We need to get pictures with the volunteers,” she said, smiling and waving. Ko then art-directed a series of photos with herself, Ji and Smoltz while the walking scorer held up their scores, numbers Ko would have rather forgotten on the spot.
Who does that? What pro, after one of the most embarrassing rounds of the past couple of years, instinctively thinks about taking pictures with the volunteers? Ji and Smoltz didn’t think about it until Ko, who dropped from leading to eighth place, called them over.
But it got better. After the photos, Ko walked directly to a gaggle of reporters who asked about her Sunday collapse in painstaking detail. Then she stood for on-camera interviews with Golf Channel, ESPN, LPGA.com, local Orlando television and an outlet called Move. She accommodated every request, answered every question. She stood outside by the scoring tent so long that her mother, Tina, brought a coat and wrapped it around Lydia’s shoulders.
Even the good ones don’t go that far. Rory McIlroy, a fine gentleman by professional-athlete standards, has snuck out the back door after a bad round on more than a few occasions. Jordan Spieth, one of the most affable and genuine stars on the PGA Tour, says, “Not now, guys,” every now and then. Lexi Thompson, who signs every autograph, sometimes finds a back way out.
Not Ko. As LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said, “She’s exactly the same whether she shoots 64 or 74. There are definitely players where you check the leaderboard before you stop and say, ‘How are you doing today?’ You don’t have to think about that with Lydia.”
Whan was at the Diamond Resorts event that Sunday. In fact, after the final round, as Ko walked off the last green after another double bogey, he leaned close to her and said, “Uno, I am really lucky to have you on this tour.”
He started calling her “Uno,” when she reached No. 1 in the world. Whan has a thing for nicknames. But the name means more than a spot in the world rankings. Ko is the youngest winner of a professional event on a major tour (age 14) and the youngest winner of an LPGA event (age 15). She won two LPGA events and finished second in a major before turning pro at age 16. At 17, she became the youngest person in history to reach world No. 1. At 18, the youngest woman to win a major and at 19, she won her second major, again the youngest. Until someone tops those records she’ll likely remain Uno to a lot of people.
But there is another reason for calling her No. 1. A few weeks after that second major championship victory, at the 2016 ANA Inspiration, a championship Ko won by stuffing a wedge to 8 inches on the final hole, she was in the car with her manager, Jay Burton. “I hadn’t seen her since that win,” Burton said. “If you remember, she hit wedge inside a foot, tapped in for birdie and then waited. Ariya (Jutanugarn) was in the final group and still had a chance to win. But the wheels came off (for Ariya) and Lydia won. So, we’re driving from the hotel to the gala event at the Swinging Skirts in San Francisco and I said, ‘Wow, Lydia, what a great win that was (at the ANA). Hitting that wedge in there like that at the last hole. Great stuff, really.
“She got real quiet for a minute and then said, ‘You know, I really wanted Ariya to win that tournament.’
“I said, ‘Of course, nobody wants somebody as sweet as Ariya to melt down like that,’ ” Burton said. “ ‘You wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But, Lydia, you do realize that if she had won, you wouldn’t be holding the trophy.’
“There was another long pause. Then she said, ‘I know.’ That’s the kind of person she is. I’ve known her since she was 14 years old. That’s the kind of person she’s always been.”
There is very little in Lydia Ko’s life that hasn’t changed since she burst onto the scene seven years ago as a prodigy. Back then she wore glasses the size of coffee-table coasters and looked like any other high schooler who enjoyed photography and food.
Since then she has changed instructors three times – from Guy Wilson, who taught her the game in New Zealand, to David Leadbetter to Gary Gilchrist to, now, Ted Oh. With each coach came a new swing and a new set of priorities.
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She lost the glasses late in 2015 and changed all the equipment in her bag in 2016. Last year she lost weight, a good bit of it, getting stronger and faster when she turned 21. She dyed her hair last year as well, showing up in Korea for the fall Asian swing with a blonde ’do that would have made Jayne Mansfield blink.
This year she has changed golf balls, going with a product she thinks is a club longer, and she has new Invisalign clear braces on her teeth. “I’m finally getting that tooth straightened out,” she said, half joking. Her upper right canine (No. 6 for those in the dental business) has always been askew, something that hasn’t seemed to bother her or anyone else. She never has altered her smile. “They’re telling me it’ll be 18 months,” Ko said. “I forget I’ve got them in until I start talking and then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t really have a lisp.’ ”
But despite the legion of changes, some things, the remarkable things in Ko’s life and makeup remain unchanged. For starters, she still works harder than perhaps anyone in the game, not because she’s pushed, but because she enjoys it.
“That’s one thing that really surprised me,” said Gareth Raflewski, the Irish short-game coach who has been working with Ko for a couple of years. Raflewski also works with the Jutanugarn sisters (Ariya and Moriya), Nelly Korda, Jane Park and other LPGA players. But for Ko, he said, “She will work 10 hours on putting and then say, ‘Should we do some more?’ I say, ‘What? No, you should go home.’
“What I realized, though, is, if you spend 10 hours at work, it can be tough. But if you spend 10 hours doing something you love, it’s not difficult and you want to do more. She loves it. So for her, working on golf isn’t work at all.”
Ted Oh, who, like Ko, was born in South Korea but raised in a western culture, said, “I remember one day when it was really chilly and it looked like rain was coming, I said, ‘Look, it’s cold – I’m cold – let’s call it a day.’ But she was having none of it. She said, ‘No, I’ve still got 45 minutes left. Let’s get it done.’ That’s her. No matter what, she is going to work on her game, not because anybody is pushing her but because she wants to get it done.”
The most impressive constant in Ko’s life, though, is her unwavering and near preternatural kindness, the sort of stuff that makes people cock their heads and say, “Wait a minute, this can’t be real, can it?” In the case of Ko, the answer is, yes, it can … and it always is.
Also unchanged is Ko’s maturity level, which rivals that of veterans twice her age. Whether it’s answering every question in a press conference in complete, thoughtful sentences while looking the questioner square in the eye, sending personalized thank-you notes to her pro-am partners or shaking hands with every check-writer on the LPGA Tour, she covers all the bases. “We were leaving a sponsor obligation recently and she said, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I forgot to say goodbye to the president,’ ” Burton said. “So, she ran back inside and left me, the agent (who is supposed to remind the client of such things), standing outside.”
“I bounce a lot of things off of Lydia,” Whan said. “Then you think about it, she is 21 years old. So, we do treat her as someone who is significantly older. I’ve never thought, ‘Wow, she’s only 21,’ when I’m bouncing an idea off of her.”
Her age always surprises those who don’t know. At a pro-am in Detroit in 2015, Ko was playing with Whan and a local radio DJ when the subject of where everyone went to school came up. Whan went to Miami of Ohio, where he played quarterback for half a training camp. Then the DJ said, “Lydia, where’d you go to school?”
Ko turned to Whan and said, “Commish, you want to take this one?”
Whan said, “If she’d gone to school, she’d be at freshman orientation right now.”
A few holes later the DJ said, “No, really, where’d she go to school.” To which Whan said, “No, really, she’s 18. She’d be a freshman right now.”
The most impressive constant in Ko’s life, though, is her unwavering and near preternatural kindness, the sort of stuff that makes people cock their heads and say, “Wait a minute, this can’t be real, can it?” In the case of Ko, the answer is, ‘Yes, it can’ … and it always is.
“You have to be a special person to think about others ahead of yourself most of the time,” Raflewski said. “That’s Lydia. And to think about people reaching the top of a sport and being that way … extraordinary, really.
“From the first day I met her, she didn’t know me from Adam but she has remained the same person from that first day until today, through periods when we didn’t work together, then periods when we worked together but didn’t see each other much, and now when we work together and see each other a lot. She’s unchanged.
“You would imagine, given what she’s been through with all the changes and with things not clicking at times that she’d give you the cold shoulder or try to avoid you. That’s not her at all. She’s just as pleasant and kind when things aren’t going her way as she is when she’s contending every week.”
Danielle Kang, a fellow major winner who hung out in Orlando and played putt-putt with Ko after the Diamond Resorts event, said, “Look, I can’t tell you a specific instance of her being kind because I don’t want people to think of it as just one thing. It’s not one thing. That’s the way she is. That’s who she is. She’s like my little sister and she’s that way all the time. She’s kind to everyone and she’s kind all the time.”
Which brings us back to the lost lead in Orlando, the tournament a couple of putts made early could have changed. Observers might look at the Diamond Resorts event as a bad omen, a sign that the Ko, who will turn 22 in April, might have peaked before most pros gain their footing. But those who follow Ko say that thinking couldn’t be more wrongheaded.
“I’ve followed her and I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with her game,” said Karen Stupples, a past Women’s British Open champion who is an analyst for Golf Channel/NBC and someone who has studied Ko’s swing changes in great detail. “She’s longer and she is getting more air under her shots. Her short game is as impressive as it has ever been.”
Oh agrees with that. “She’s stronger now than ever,” the coach said. “Toward the end of last year, it really started to show. Now she doesn’t need to stand the club up and get that arm so high to make up for a lack of strength. So we’ve worked on freeing her swing up, getting her arm plane in a position where she can be more consistent without having to reroute (the club) as much.
“She also wanted to work on her footwork and her lower body rotation. But she wasn’t strong enough. Now she is, so we’re working on using her lower body to generate power while her upper body makes her more consistent. She can use her larger muscles now to gain extra power.”
Raflewski nodded and said, “Now that things have settled down, with swing changes and everything around her, you could see her reach a whole new level. That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
Whan summed it up when he said, “You never know when somebody’s best golf is going to happen. All these incredible 21-year-olds tend to skew the picture. You still have a lot of players who don’t play their best golf until after (age) 25. That used to be the norm. And you still have plenty of that. If Lydia has what we used to consider a normal golf career, where she gets better (at 25), that’s staggering stuff.”
Then the commissioner, who is in his 10th year with the LPGA, paused, an unusual moment of quiet and stillness for a man who never stops moving. Finally he said, “We have others, obviously, people like Brooke Henderson and So Yeon Ryu, who are over-the-top role models. But I look at Lydia and I don’t think a lot of guys my age could have handled the kind of success she had at 17 and not changed. It’s pretty amazing. … She’s pretty amazing.”
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