The LPGA Tour continues its swing through Australia this week, setting out its stall at The Grange Golf Club in Adelaide for a tournament featuring 144 women and not one man.
Unlike last week’s groundbreaking ISPS Handa Vic Open at Barwon Heads, in which the women contested a tournament alongside a separate men’s event on two courses at 13th Beach Golf Links, the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open is a conventional one-course, one-gender event.
So we’re very much back in familiar territory. There are gallery ropes at The Grange, for example, dogs aren’t allowed on the course, and children carrying animal-shaped balloons – such as the little face-painted girl whose balloon-dog exploded just as Spain’s Azahara Muñoz was putting for birdie at Barwon Heads on Sunday – will be politely discouraged from getting too close to the action.
The Women’s Australian Open has been co-sanctioned by the LPGA Tour since 2012, and by the Ladies European Tour for several years before that, and it boasts an illustrious list of past champions including Laura Davies, Karrie Webb, Yani Tseng and Lydia Ko. With a prize purse of $1.3 million US, it is a substantial tournament with a strong field played on a quality course – and more power to the LPGA for venturing this far from home.
Ko, the world No. 14, is in the field, having missed the Vic Open because of corporate commitments, as is world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn, her sister, Moriya, defending champion Jin Young Ko, England’s Georgia Hall, local favourites Webb and Minjee Lee, and rising American standout Nelly Korda. In fact, Jutanugarn, Korda and Ko were paired in a blockbuster group for the opening two days.
But it is around Ko, the former world No. 1 from New Zealand, that much attention is focussed.
So much has happened to her since 2012, it seems as though she has crammed a career’s worth of experiences – victories and defeats, highs and lows – into barely seven years.
In 2012, as a 14-year-old, she announced herself to the golfing world with victories in the New South Wales Open in Australia (becoming the youngest person to win a pro golf tour event), the Canadian Women’s Open in August against a full LPGA Tour field (shooting a 67 on the final day to prevail by three shots and become, at 15 years, four months, the youngest winner on that tour), then the New Zealand Open early in 2013.
The following week, Ko began the Women’s Australian Open at Royal Canberra with an opening-round 63 and then led the championship going into the final day. Such was the excitement generated by the Pipsqueak from Pupuke (her home club in New Zealand) in attempting back-to-back wins as a 15-year-old that Golf Channel chose to telecast the final round live. Alas, she faded to finish third.
That extraordinary run of success, however, was a harbinger of things to come. It came as a surprise to precisely no one when, on 2 February 2015, at the age of 17 years and nine months, she became the youngest golfer of either gender to achieve the No. 1 ranking. Seven months later, she won the Evian Championship, becoming, naturally, the youngest major winner in the process. Her star seemed permanently in ascendance
Yet here we are, four years on, and things haven’t quite panned out how we might have imagined.
The Ko glow has lost some of its lustre. Wins have been hard to come by, the disappointments more frequent.
Even three weeks ago, when she led the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Florida into the final round, Ko finished with an ugly 6-over 77 that included two double bogeys in a back-nine 42. That kind of collapse simply wouldn’t have happened three or four years ago, when she was seemingly invincible and there was no better front-runner.
But the delicate ecosystem that produced such sustained brilliance has been tampered with – she has changed swing coaches, turned over a dozen caddies and taken on a new equipment manufacturer – and somewhere along the way the magic has been lost.
“You’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days. It’s super important to remain calm and positive and just be mindful … as the storm goes by.” — Lydia Ko on how yoga has helped her deal with setbacks on the course
As she enters a new season, Ko, who opened with a 1-under-par 71 at The Grange, says she is optimistic about 2019. One of the reasons is that she took up practising yoga in December. She loves the inner calm that she draws from it.
“I do it not only for the physical side but the mental side, just meditation,’’ she said at The Grange on Tuesday.
“When we’re either on our phones or out playing golf or talking, you don’t have much time for yourself to have peace and quiet in your mind.
“I love that one hour of getting your mind away from everything and not worrying about what’s going on around. I’ve been enjoying it and flexibility hasn’t been one of the key points of my body and that’s been helping, too.’’
In the revealing press conference, Ko, 21, indicated she was looking forward to a long and productive career in the game, and had no intention of becoming just another teen sporting prodigy who was burnt out by the time she’d reached her early 20s.
She said yoga had helped her deal with setbacks on the course – or what she described as “passing storms” – and given her a fresh perspective on her career.
“You’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days. It’s super important to remain calm and positive and just be mindful … as the storm goes by,” she said.
“I think that’s a really big thing. And we’re lucky that we’re able to play golf for a long time in our career. And if you have that really mindful mindset, I think you can have a longer career and a successful one.”
Lydia Ko tees off on the second hole during the second round of the 2018 Canadian Pacific Women’s Open. Photo: Sergei Belski-USA Today Sports
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