Lydia Ko — how and why?

By Neville Idour

Lydia Ko’s surprising steady fall from the giddy heights of world number one in 2015/16 to number 24 at time of writing has been well documented. 

However, New Zealand commentators have been treading on eggshells in an effort not to be negative about Ko. 

It is not my intention to do that either. But it is interesting to delve into what facts there are in an effort to establish how and why this is continuing.

Firstly though, let us be clear that whatever the future holds, it is up to Ko and her family to make decisions. 

She has already won over $10 million on the LPGA Tour alone and who knows what her sponsorships and endorsements are bringing in. 

The maximising of these income streams for Ko and many of her fellow professionals is understandable and evident from the number of logos decorating their apparel. 

So she doesn’t need to hit another golf ball if she chooses. Financially secure, she can ride off into the sunset knowing she has achieved far more than most people do in the field of sporting endeavour. She has spoken about pursuing other interests while still young.

But there is no doubt that her fans would like to see her regain her mojo. So how and why has it happened?

To cut to the chase, Ko’s former coach David Leadbetter recently made several pointed comments and it is hard to deny he hit most of the nails on the head. It is a well known fact in New Zealand golf circles that the control of her parents and sister have been a concerning and constant factor and in the opinion of most, not a positive.  

Some media and others have accused Leadbetter of sour grapes. But why? He doesn’t need Ko. His success and record with Ko and many others speak for themselves. Surely anyone in his position would simply be saddened watching what has happened and want her to turn it around.

Let us not forget the work of Guy Wilson in her formative years, which saw her winning on the LPGA Tour. 

Then the distance factor was cited as a reason to use Leadbetter. In three years with Leadbetter  until December 2016, Ko achieved 17 LPGA wins including two majors and was ranked number one for most of the time. 

In the three years since, she has won once. What did he do wrong to get the sack? 

Then came, it is hard to deny, the smorgasbord of decisions that seemed to begin the slide. There was virtually nothing about her golf game that wasn’t completely changed. It is difficult to remember any top golfer maintaining their level after such drastic changes. 

Who remembers Padraig Harrington? He wins three majors in two years then decides he has to get better, makes many changes including the swing and has been almost anonymous since. I could recite the woes of many others who made the same mistake.

Before looking at Ko’s eye-opening statistics, just what were the hallmarks of her game until 2016?

Firstly, she was always a very happy looking person with a relaxed (nothing fazes me) demeanour. She had a game marked by amazing touch and feel. Her accuracy and distance control were without peer. 

Her supposed lack of distance with her tee shots did not prevent her being the best. This was a red herring as in her early years she ranked around 60th, a little above average, but had drifted to 150th this year. Whoever made the decision that she needed to get more distance may have been better to allow her natural maturing physicality to do its work.

Her distance actually decreased for a period. In 2014, when still a young teenager, her average driving distance was 250 yards. By 2017 it was 243 yards. In 2019 it is 248 yards.  

Unfortunately her accuracy has fallen from 79 percent in 2014 to 68 percent this year. 

Greens in regulation were 77 percent in 2015, 68 percent this year. Average putts per round were best in 2016 at 28.31. This year, at 29.47, it means well over four more shots per tournament. Therefore her scoring average mirrors this with an average score of 69.44 in 2015 and 71.02 this year, a full shot worse than ever before. 

Her birdie average peaked at 16 per event through the 2015/16 season. It is now 11. 

In the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 she was top three or top 10 in most statistics. It has been a huge change since and this year she only registers in two top 20 stats. 

It doesn’t make for good reading. In five years to 2018 she recorded 74 top 10 finishes in 142 events. Outstanding numbers indeed but again the last three years have seen less of them.

So where to from here if Ko decides to try and arrest the situation?

Some people have suggested she go back to Guy Wilson, but this is unlikely to happen. It could be argued that Ryan Fox can do it with Marcus Wheelhouse so why not Ko? 

Wheelhouse is able to travel with Fox for 12 weeks of the year but this is not an option for Ko as she clearly requires her coach to be easily accessible at all times. 

What about going back to Leadbetter given she achieved most of her success with him? That seems to be a logical option but that would be a huge admission by the Ko team for that to happen, not to mention the odd pie or two on the menu.

The other factor that is very noticeable is Ko’s new look. Her body shape has changed along with her slimmer look as she has matured. These growth, or influenced changes, can have a significant effect on the swing. 

Her game has clearly become more mechanical, deliberate and seemingly lacking in confidence as the last couple of years have unfolded. The touch and feel appears to have been coached out of her.

Perhaps a clearing of the slate and going back to her origins and regaining that natural touch and feel, in other words re-finding and taking ownership of her unique swing, may be a start. Certainly the last two missed major cuts need to be a watershed time in her career.

Whatever the future holds, Ko can be assured that her place as one of the great golfers will remain and her fans will continue to wish her the very best.