Nov 19, 2013 Sport
Ten years ago, Lydia Ko, aged five, walked onto a suburban North Shore golf course and asked for a lesson. Now she’s set to become the highest-paid athlete in New Zealand sporting history. How did that happen?
First published in Metro, April 2013.
“Assouan” is what the French call the ancient Egyptian city of Aswan and, mysteriously, it’s also the name of the treacherous par-four 16th at Titirangi Golf Club. From the black competition tees, your drive must cross a valley thick with mature native bush, avoid the towering pines to the left, and land on the fairway more than 150 metres away. It’s not an outrageous shot for an adult golfer, but not one to be taken lightly either.
Lydia Ko first faced the 16th in competition at the North Island Strokeplay in 2006, and Assouan proved a hole too far. She launched ball after ball into the bush below, watched by older competitors who muttered persistently that she should have been in school. When she returned to the hole the following day, though, she had a plan. A seven-iron layup got her to the edge of the bush and a more manageable shot over a shorter distance.
Ko and her advisers had thought about her physical limitations and come up with a strategy. She was nine years old.
Three years later, she returned to the acclaimed West Auckland course, but her second run at Titirangi also ended in defeat. This loss, though, was on the far bigger stage of the New Zealand Women’s Amateur Championship, in the 36-hole final. And while she failed to take the title, her poise under the scrutiny of a large media contingent so impressed the gallery that four people who have played key roles in her ascent say it was the moment they realised she was destined for greatness.
“You could see in that moment that Lydia was out there to win it,” said one. Another noted that Ko “was able to go through her routines and focus, with the cameras from here to the wall. I thought, ‘That’s different. I haven’t seen that before.’”
The loss hardly got her down. Instead, it made her train harder. Today, golf is already a full-time job for the 15-year-old (she’ll be 16 on April 24). Danish radar machines and 3D cameras zero in on tiny issues with her game, which she hammers into submission with relentless repetition. A typical non-school day will see her rise at six, stretch for 30 minutes before heading to Albany’s Institute of Golf for an hour’s lesson. Afterwards, she’ll meet up with her father, Gil Hong Ko, to work on her short game at the Peninsula Golf Club for two hours, before heading up to Gulf Harbour to “beat balls, work in the bunkers or play 18 holes”.
Even on school days, she’ll do a couple of hours in the morning, more in the evening and sometimes more inbetween — it adds up to close to 50 hours a week now, and when she was younger, she still managed to get in around 20 a week.
All of which means that sometime between those events at Titirangi, Ko ticked over her 10,000 hours of golf — the vast number that entered popular consciousness via Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers. The book popularised Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s theory that 10,000 hours of practice is the magic, slightly insane, number required to master any discipline. The figure is held close by both her coach, Guy Wilson, and the Institute of Golf, his employer.
Those heavy hours have led to some quite incredible results. At nine, Ko finished second in the Callaway Junior World Champs in San Diego. At 13, she won the Australian Women’s Strokeplay — the youngest winner in the tournament’s history (henceforth abbreviated to TYWITTH, for brevity’s sake).
The following year, at 14, she won the New South Wales Open, TYWITTH and the youngest winner of a professional tournament in history. Six months later, following a victory in the US Women’s Amateur, she shocked the golfing world at the Canadian Open. Not only was she TYWITTH and the first amateur to win on the LPGA Tour since the 60s, she was also the youngest-ever LPGA winner.
The Canadian Open is no run-of-the-mill tournament, either. Until 2000, it was one of the four majors of women’s golf, and to win, she beat 49 of the top 50 players in the world.
Ron Sirak believes she has the potential to be a Tiger Woods-level, paradigm-changing presence in women’s golf.
Right now, Lydia Ko is the most explosive talent in women’s golf — after tennis, the richest women’s sport in the world. She has already turned down nearly $1 million in prize money due to her amateur status, and golf observers around the world are in awe. Ron Sirak is executive editor of Golf World magazine and has covered the women’s game for two decades. He believes she has the potential to be a Tiger Woods-level, paradigm-changing presence in women’s golf.
“The key with Lydia that makes me take her very, very seriously is that not only is the hype significant, but she performs up to the hype,” says Sirak. “I do expect her to be a star.”
The journey from Auckland to the edge of global stardom began when Ko walked into the pro shop at Pupuke Golf Course in Campbells Bay on the North Shore. She was five years old, spoke almost no English and had only recently arrived in New Zealand from the southern Korean island of Jeju. Her first swing of a golf club had come only a few weeks earlier at her aunt’s place in Australia.
She was also lucky — in the right place at the right time for a series of circumstances to help her along the way — and that’s another of Gladwell’s critical requirements for success.
Perhaps most important, behind the counter that day was Guy Wilson, 22 years old and still only an apprentice instructor. The pair, green as they were, clicked to form a partnership unlike any seen in New Zealand golf since Michael Campbell and Mal Tongue got together. And that duo produced one dazzling major victory and some lumpen form either side. This one is set to go far further.
It began inauspiciously enough. Sandie Jennins is a Pupuke and North Harbour stalwart, with half a century of golf behind her since starting at the age of 10. She works in Pupuke’s busy starter’s office most days, and still remembers Ko’s arrival into the club’s milieu. “I was there and this little girl came along,” she says. “She looked like she was playing at golf rather than playing golf, so it was pretty hard to take her seriously.”
That didn’t last long. Ko’s parents were uncommonly supportive of their daughter’s fledgling interest. Gil Hong Ko works remotely in the Korean banking industry, on Korean time, leaving his days free to spend with his younger daughter (they have another, who lives in Korea). From the start, the family spent well over $100 a week on three to four hours of lessons, and pushed her to devote much of her spare time to golf. Ko had barely started school, but Wilson found a way to engage her, to make the lessons fun, with humour and challenges.
The first serious hurdle came when she needed time to practise what she was taught. Most golf clubs have a minimum age requirement, and at the time Pupuke’s was 10. Wilson petitioned the committee — a rotating group of members who make decisions on behalf of the wider group — for an exemption. A few years earlier, they had denied one to an eight-year-old, and “she consequently gave up golf”, recalls Jennins sadly. But for Ko, a different committee produced a different result — thanks in no small part to Wilson’s insistence.
Without that, Ko would not have been able to advance so swiftly. She became a familiar presence, skipping contentedly around the fairways, to the surprise and occasional chagrin of the club’s older members. Her dedication saw her receive her first handicap at the age of seven. It was 21 — respectable for an adult. For a seven-year-old it was, says Wilson, “sort of unheard of”.
The following year she was doing well enough that Sky’s Golf Club show sought her out for a segment. The footage shows Ko, head to toe in pink, straining, hand-over-hand, to pull clubs out of a golf bag as tall as she is. She yanks off the club’s novelty Garfield headcovers, but it’s there the kid’s stuff ends. Wilson checks her feet spacing, and Ko drops into a perfect stance above the ball, before launching into a surprisingly long, straight drive with an effortless swing.
Already she was managing to balance being a kid with the serious business of golf. Later that year, she won an age-group tournament at the Redwood Park club in Swanson, but was nowhere to be found when prizegiving started. A swift search was conducted so she could receive the trophy.
“She was down the road at the park, just on the swings and slides,” recalls Laurie Flynn, course manager at Pupuke.
Soon after, she was chosen for her first rep team by Jennins, current president of North Harbour Women’s Golf, and then a selector for the women’s programme. At age nine, Ko was playing senior representative golf for the reigning national champions.
Interprovincial golf became a staple part of her competitive diet and introduced her to Cecilia Cho, the other great amateur golfer this country has produced in recent times — and the victor in that 36-hole final at Titirangi in the New Zealand Amateur.
Cho was a fellow transplanted Korean and golfing prodigy, and the pair’s intense but friendly rivalry became another key element in Ko’s advancement. They met many times over the next few years and David Niethe, a mental performance coach who has worked with both players, says “without a doubt, it contributed to the acceleration of their performance”.
There are a number of advantages to playing in a golfing microclimate like New Zealand’s. Relatively cheap and easy access to courses, and more hospitable weather than in many parts of the world, for example. But finding good competition can be a lottery. Cho and Ko, lucky to have each other, effectively became each other’s yardsticks. Cho was the better golfer through the early years, though Ko was coming up fast behind her.
Says New Zealand Golf’s high-performance manager, Gregg Thorpe: “They were playing off each other, they were training with the other player in mind. There’s no doubt they inspired each other.”
Both being of Korean origin helped them bond, and Cho says between shots their banter was more often about K-Pop and soapy Korean dramas than golf. But, away from the course, each was in the other’s mind when they trained.
“The experience that I had was, a few days before the tournament, my body would automatically be out on the golf course practising without anyone bothering me to get out and practise,” says Cho. The duo were the best amateurs in the country and, for a while, the best in the world — Cho was ranked number one, and Ko number two.
It’s no coincidence the two best amateurs in the world were of Korean origin. South Korea dominates women’s golf like no country has ever dominated a mainstream, worldwide sport, filling around 40 percent of professional ranks. Ask anyone in the golf world why and they’ll tell you the same thing: work ethic.
“They work harder and longer and are more focused than anyone else,” says Wilson. “They’re all working as hard if not harder than her [Ko] every week. And it’s not one of them, it’s thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. So just by sheer numbers they’re going to get the result.”
Ron Sirak, who has watched as the LPGA has been swamped by wave after wave of talented young Koreans, has a theory about what’s driving so many young women towards golf.
“The girl’s programme is very dad-driven — it’s driven by the fathers,” he says. “And if you look at the nature of Korean society, Korean culture, women don’t stand much of a chance of moving up in the ranks, of becoming the chief executive officer of a corporation. I think the one profession that women have an opportunity to really advance in is sports. And the LPGA is the world’s oldest and most successful professional sports organisation for women in the world.
Burnout is cited by everyone I spoke to as the number-one hazard for Lydia Ko.
“There’s a good and a bad to that. Sometimes the fathers are pushing them a little too hard. And there are quite a few examples of burnout out there among the Koreans. That’s Lydia’s challenge — how does she manage her time and her schedule so she doesn’t burn out?”
Burnout is cited by everyone I spoke to as the number-one hazard for Lydia Ko. To what extent the wariness is driven by cultural and ethnic differences is hard to say, but Korean parents have a reputation for forcing girls into long, arduous hours of practice. And the punishing practice regimes that have propelled the rise of Korean women’s golf have given rise to a number of prominent casualties.
Se Ri Pak is the player who more than any other was responsible for the explosion in popularity of the sport in South Korea, with a glittering career highlighted by two major wins in 1998 — the same year she was hospitalised for exhaustion. Growing up, she was reportedly made by her father to run up and down the stairwell of their 15-storey apartment block at 5.30am and train in the bitter cold until icicles formed in her hair.
In 2005, she spoke frankly of her struggles to engage with the game and continue her early form. “I’ve been a little bit unhappy about everything, my game, big game,” she said. “I’m not really enjoying it at all, and I’m not doing anything with my ability.”
Next up was Michelle Wie, the Honolulu-born Korean teen sensation to whom Ko is often compared. Wie has never found consistent form to match her US$10 million a year in endorsements from Nike and Sony. At 14, she missed the cut by one stroke in a men’s PGA event, but has failed to kick on, and speaks wistfully of her time at Stanford University in California — away from the LPGA — as “the best four-and-a-half years of my life”. Sirak echoed the feelings of many when we spoke in suggesting he’s “not sure if she loves the game”.
No one has ever suggested Lydia Ko doesn’t love golf. But she’s 15! And, as Jennins says, golf is “all she’s ever known”. Jennifer Capriati won the tennis gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 at 15; a couple of years later, she was arrested for shoplifting and marijuana possession.
What if Ko discovers she likes boys, or drugs, or hanging out at the mall more than practice? According to those who know her well, a number of factors make her less likely to succumb to distraction than most.
Although coach Guy Wilson says Gil Hong is “quite strict on her” in training, that tallies with Korean family culture, and doesn’t seem to prevent Ko from enjoying herself. Tellingly, she has started to pick her tournaments for more reasons than rank or fame — she played the recent Queenstown Pro Am, for example, for fun, not competition.
Nor does she struggle for motivation. “I wouldn’t say she has an absolute love for training,” says New Zealand Golf’s Thorpe. “But she’s got an absolute love for competing. And she understands that link between competing at the level she wants to, and competing against the players that she wants to — she understands what’s required.”
“If anything, I think her enthusiasm is growing. She’s more and more excited about what she’s doing, and what she’s creating.”
It’s a sentiment David Niethe backs up. “[Burnout] is never really something we’ve discussed,” her mental performance coach says. “If anything, I think her enthusiasm is growing. She’s more and more excited about what she’s doing, and what she’s creating. It’s one of those things where if you have an athlete who has a real clear vision… the thing now, for her, is how do we get to world number one, in the professional sense?”
That goal might have seemed distant as recently as a year ago. Not now. Already she’s ranked 25th in the world, even though she has played far fewer events than her competitors — no one else in the top 150 has done so much with so little. Michelle Wie, for all the hype, is 50 places below her.
Of Ko’s 12 professional starts, three have resulted in wins — a remarkable success rate — and many other statistics also underline how good she is. Inbee Park topped the LPGA’s money list last year, earning US$2.29 million. In Ko’s brief, four-tournament run on the LPGA in 2012, she has Park even or beaten in almost every key statistic, from driving accuracy, greens in regulation, driving distance and putts per green in regulation.
To make the leap, from there or thereabouts, to Tiger or McIlroy-like dominance will require her to do two things. The first is to continue to get the white-hot, world-class competition that has spurred her gains. For that she needs philanthropic support — and thanks to Sir David Levene, she has it. His financial backing has been instrumental in allowing Ko to compete in major tournaments.
The second is not to train harder — that’s, frankly, impossible — but smarter. The quality of her instruction, along with her talent, is the key difference between her and the legion in Korea. The team around her — Wilson, Institute of Golf CEO Craig Dixon and their colleagues — are delivering state-of-the-art advice, techniques and analysis they confidently proclaim as world class.
They’re aided in this by Gregg Thorpe and New Zealand Golf. For most of the past decade, Ko has been working on the obvious areas that need attention: length off the tee, consistency of swing, putting — the standard, workaday issues common in varying degrees to all golfers. The problem is that at some point she will be in uncharted territory.
Wilson himself has to keep upskilling so he can stay useful to her. Over the past couple of years, the two of them have increased their use of New Zealand Golf’s state-of-the-art technology, aiming to eke out the tiny gains that mean the difference between a 68 and 69 on the final round and victory or defeat in the big tournaments to come.
To help with this, New Zealand Golf has brought in a system from Australia which 3D-maps a golfer’s swing, looking for minute imperfections. It also has Trackman, a $50,000, briefcase-sized Danish radar system which uses military technology to measure everything from trajectory to ball spin and the consistency of club-face angle when it strikes the ball.
Not long ago, the technology helped to identify a club which was consistently problematic for Ko and allowed her team to test and select the right replacement. “After the US Open last year, we found a huge gap from 6 iron to her hybrid,” says
Wilson. “This data helped us close the gap, so her 150-yard shots were just as impressive as her 140 and 160. Previously, the 150-yard area was an issue and her short game was put under pressure because of it. Now it’s a strength.”
Among Trackman’s 22 different measurements — with names such as “attack angle”, “spin loft” and “smash factor” — are some which show just how exceptional Ko has already become.
Take a recent Trackman dataset she produced, which bears comparison with one recorded by world men’s number one Rory McIlroy in 2010. Naturally, McIlroy hits the ball further, but Ko has him beat for smash factor, which combines club speed with how centred the club was at impact. In fact, her smash factor is, on average, better than almost all PGA pros this side of legendary long hitter Bubba Watson.
Across each set of comparable data I was shown, Ko was more consistent than Rory McIlroy, indicating, basically, that her shots are more likely to go where she wants them to.
More telling still is the consistency with which she hits her shots. Each of the 22 parameters is assigned a variable, based on the average range of outcomes within the group of shots. Across each set of comparable data I was shown, Ko was more consistent than McIlroy, indicating, basically, that her shots are more likely to go where she wants them to.
When I mention this to Wilson, he is pleased but not surprised. “I don’t know that there’s too many people in the world who hit it that straight,” he says, “and that consistently.”
So why isn’t Lydia Ko already number one in the world? Aside from the fact she’s played only 12 professional tournaments, it’s mostly because of her stature. As Thorpe puts it, “She’s not six foot two. She’s not throwing weights around at the gym. She’s a pretty unassuming 15-year-old girl.”
Lack of size and strength is the one consequence of her age that she can’t really overpower with hours, although she is working with a physio and trainer to get stronger, and longer. Length off the tee is the one conspicuous hole in her game, but it will naturally correct as she matures.
And that underlines the value of her consistency. “She has this ability to stay quite grounded and consistent throughout her round,” says Niethe.
Says Sirak: “Consistency. The consistent quality of her golf shots and the consistent quality of her mental engagement.”
Says the data-obsessed Thorpe: “Overall, it’s consistency. And it’s consistency of her face angle at impact, and the dispersion comes from that. We know that because of the consistency of strike, and the consistency of club-face at impact, it allows the dispersion of her shots to be very close to her intended target.”
It’s not just Ko’s swing and shots that are so consistent. It’s also her mental state: the next, and one of the biggest, critical factors that make her so good. It’s striking how calm she is on the course, playing one shot to the next with the same playful, relaxed demeanour, regardless of how well it’s going.
In golf, this really matters. Most sporting codes are essentially reactive and instinctual. In golf, you have nothing but time to obsess over what you’re going to do — and what you’ve done.
During Ko’s horror final round at the 2013 Australian Open in February, when she faded from outright lead to a share of third place, the worst you could say she ever looked was nonplussed. She might have winced slightly when a shot veered into the trees or a putt rimmed out. But for the most part you’d never have known she was in contention for a second victory in consecutive weekends. Not letting the enormity of a shot get to you is a core part of winning golf.
That sunny, balanced attitude has been described as the New Zealand part of her character, by way of contrast to the fierce Korean drive. There’s a touch of amateur sociology at work in both characterisations — and ethnic stereotyping at their core. Still, it’s impossible to deny how agreeable her public face has been. When asked what she would have done with the US$300,000 winner’s cheque from the Canadian Open had her amateur status not disallowed it, she gave an impossibly endearing answer.
“Ah, I don’t know. It’s always been my goal to have a… Well, I’ve always wanted a dog,” she said.
“And maybe help the poor; there’s so many people in need of money that maybe half of it, or a majority of it, will go to those people that are in need of that money.”
It’s a sweltering early afternoon in March and I’m standing in a bay at the Institute of Golf’s driving range in Albany, hacking away with a sand wedge and a six iron. In the next bay, Lydia Ko and Guy Wilson are working on her driver. Ko’s mother, Tina Hyon, watches impassively in the background.
They are trying to iron out a few kinks Ko has brought home from her four-tournament road trip. She has come over from nearby Pinehurst School, changed into a light-blue golf shirt and navy Puma sweatpants, and is squeezing an hour’s instruction into her school day.
Wilson detects a slight bob of her head, just a couple of centimetres, which is making her driver a little wayward. The problem was most noticeable in that final round of the Australian Open.
Ko complains about the heat, jokes about getting hair extensions and moans about how full she still feels after the Korean barbecue they ate with family friends the night before. All the while she’s hitting ball after ball dead straight, as natural as breathing. Her coach lets her grumble and hit, playing along with her complaints, then gently brings her back to task.
“What do you feel your head doing when you swing?”
“I feel like a Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she replies.
The session continues in this vein — joking, hitting, instruction — with the occasional pause to analyse video Wilson shoots of her swing. After a while, she tops one ball and it spears along, barely a metre off the ground. Wilson winces, Ko groans.
The bad shot seems to snap Ko to attention, and she reels off a series of soaring, perfect drives with the camera on her. Hyon covers one eye, looking straight down the ball’s line, occasionally commenting to Wilson in halting English about her daughter’s head movement.
When they finish, Ko picks up her bag, which still contains a lot of novelty soft-toy headcovers, carries it wearily to a silver Honda Odyssey people mover, and is driven back to school.
That’s life right now for Lydia Ko. While other kids her age eat lunch, play video games and make out, she’s hitting golf balls. Watching her, you can see some teenage recalcitrance, but she just plows through it: nothing, not hormones, not emotions, not a full stomach, can derail practice.
She didn’t come out of nowhere. She found a good coach early and has a great coaching set-up around her. She has supportive parents and the intense work ethic of a driven culture. She has been pushed by the competitive friendship of Cecilia Cho and given special chances to compete through philanthropic support. And because of all of that, her formidable talent and enormous mental control have been able to shine. When you ask what makes a champion, Lydia Ko is a classic.
Her next big date is April’s Kraft Nabisco Championship in California — known, charmingly, as “spring break for lesbians” due to its popularity with gay and bisexual women. It’s the first major of the year, and Ko will be there.
For now, she must straddle her two worlds — the overworked high-school kid and the budding golf superstar. She’ll probably turn pro some time in the next 18 months. “Very soon,” says Ron Sirak, “if it hasn’t already happened, somebody’s going to start throwing piles of money at her and the temptations to turn pro are going to be significant.”
When she does, he says, beyond her talent and coaching, she has one other significant edge over all the Korean-domiciled players thronging to the LPGA. “I think growing up essentially in New Zealand gives her a huge advantage over other Korean players because she’s so fluent in English,” says Sirak.
“That enhances her marketability enormously. I think that the fact Lydia is from Korea but was raised in New Zealand creates the possibility she could be a global player, be a truly international player who is recognised in any country.”
Sporting history is littered with high-school phenoms who flamed out early. But Ko has shown more than enough so far to suggest she’s equipped to weather the coming storms. A team of unprepossessing Aucklanders have helped build this champion. Now they — and the rest of us — are anxiously waiting to see just how far Lydia Ko can go.