Lydia Ko always makes for an easy story. She’s a player you love to love because of her charm, smile, wit and boundless optimism. Even in the down times – and there was a stretch where things seemed pretty down – no serious follower of the game ever harbored ill will toward Ko. She’s almost impossible not to like.
So, when she roared back to the winner’s circle at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii with a dominating 28-under-par performance, it was easy to break out the pompoms and hoist up a hoorah for a young woman who set almost every “youngest-ever” record in the game. The “Lydia is Back” lightning bolt scorched social media for a couple of days. It also seemed like everyone had an opinion about what led to the comeback and what caused the slump in the first place.
With all that in mind, it’s important to take a couple of steps back and divorce the player from the performance. If, instead of the nicest young person you’d ever want to meet (a woman you’d be proud to call your daughter), Lydia was a jackass who blew off fans and erupted at the media, the rise, fall, and resurrection of her game would still be worthy of dispassionate analysis.
For example, let’s not forget that she doesn’t turn 24 until this Saturday. She has 16 career victories before that birthday. Tiger Woods had 15 wins before he turned 24.
Ko has also spent 40 percent of her career ranked in the top 10 in the world, a spot she reclaimed after her victory on Sunday moved her back up to No. 7 in the Rolex Rankings.
It’s also worth noting that her 28-under in Hawaii, good enough for 7-shot victory over Hall of Famer Inbee Park and last year’s Player of the Year Sei Young Kim, was the second-lowest total in LPGA Tour history. And Ko’s last 100 holes before the start of the Hugel-Air Primera LA Open included one eagle, one bogey, 59 pars and 39 birdies. For the math-challenged, that’s 40 under for 100 holes.
It’s enough to make you forget that you ever doubted her; that you, like almost everyone else, thought all the different equipment, coaches and caddies, all the swings and all the changes to her body had beaten the gifts out of her and turned a natural artist into a paint-by-numbers engineer. The criticism was loud and personal. It drove her off Twitter and, in private, brought her to tears.
A look at her 2021 results makes that slump seem more like a blip than a career-threatening crisis. Prior to LA, she had played five events this year. Her finishes are a tie for second, a tie for eighth, a tie for 26th, another tie for second (at the ANA Inspiration where she shot a final-round, record-setting 62 to come close to catching winner Patty Tavatanakit) and, of course, Ko’s tournament-record victory in Hawaii. In 20 rounds she was over par exactly once, an opening 74 at the Kia Classic. And 50 percent of her rounds have been in the 60s.
This didn’t happen overnight, nor was it rung in with the new year. Ko’s final four events of 2020, starting in October at the LPGA Drive On Championship at Lake Oconee and going through the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples were: T8, T4, T13 and T5.
What got her there? The answer is simple: the same magical short game that she’s had for years, coupled with better ball striking.
Going back to her amateur days in 2012 (and, lest we not forget, Ko won four professional events as an amateur – youngest ever – in addition to capturing the Australian Women’s Amateur and becoming the youngest winner of the U.S. Women’s Amateur), if she had been a member of the LPGA Tour at the time, her metrics would have placed her seventh in total driving. She was never long (254 yards in 2012), but the baby fade she played with every shot was as precise as any ball striker in the game.
The same was true in 2013 when, still an amateur, she hit 78 percent of her fairways and averaged 251 yards off the tee. That, once again, would have placed her seventh in total driving.
In 2014, her first full year as a pro, she ticked up a percentage point in fairways hit (79 percent) but was 1 yard shorter (250 yards) than she was in 2013 and 4 yards behind how she hit it in 2012 as a 15-year-old. Still, she finished the year seventh again in total driving.
In 2015 Ko claimed that she was trying to get longer by learning to hit a draw. Those of us who have been around longer than a laminated 3-wood wanted to scream “stop.” But it was too late. That year Ko won everything – Player of the Year, money title, Race to the CME Globe – and finished second in scoring average. But she also went the wrong way off the tee. Her average drive was 250.39, which was 60th on tour. And she only hit 75.44 percent of her fairways, which ranked 43rd.
She fell off the tightrope in the middle of 2016. Despite four wins, three seconds, four other top-five finishes, and a Silver Medal in the Rio Olympic Games (a career year by most standards) Ko also had some uncharacteristic struggles. She let a commanding lead in the Player of the Year and Race to CME Globe slip away after her last win in mid-July. She finished 40th at the Women’s Open, 43rd at the Evian Championship and at the Toto Japan Classic, and 51st in front of her mom’s family at the KEB HanaBank Championship in Korea. Again, the reason was no mystery. She averaged 246.73 yards off the tee and only hit 70.88 percent of her fairways. That put her 123rd in total driving on the LPGA Tour.
It’s been a long road back. But if you want to see the real difference, it’s not in the putting stats, where Ko has always been a star. Sure, she is ranked second on tour in putts per green hit in regulation. But so far in 2021, she is als0 averaging 261.48 yards off the tee, the longest she’s ever been. Her accuracy is still a work in progress. She’s hitting 69.29 percent of the fairways so far. But expect that number to get better as the season rolls along.
With it, you can expect the new Lydia Ko to do what the old Lydia Ko did back in her teenage years.
Vault up the world rankings, collect more hardware, and, as always, charm us with her wonderful personality.
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