Lydia Ko is calling the shots. Or, at least she’s learning to.
The world number one came under fire last week following her decision to split from instructors David Leadbetter and Sean Hogan. Ko had worked with them for three years. Leadbetter was the first to announce the separation, releasing a statement on Wednesday. In subsequent interviews, he criticized Ko’s parents for their role in not only the split but their management of Ko’s game. “It’s been difficult the last few months, when she’s hearing more than one voice,” Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com.
“I think I have, yes, sometimes been too reliant on my parents because I am so used to being with them,” Ko told LPGA.com via email, her first public comments since the split was announced. “But I think I need to learn more about taking ownership and making my own decisions.”
What 19-year-old is capable of managing a worldwide travel schedule, sponsor obligations and a successful athletic career all on their own? When did it become a negative to ask parents for a little advice? It’s a playbook Johnny Manziel could have taken a page from.
“Of course I discussed my decision with my parents,” Ko explained. “They gave their opinions, too. But at the end of the day I made the final decision to change. My parents are a big part of my golfing career and I know I wouldn’t be here without them.”
But Ko is growing up, and not without a few pains.
“I am very close with my parents. But it would be a lie to say that we have never had an argument or I’ve never been upset because of them,” Ko said. “But at the end of the day, even though I may not know at the time, they are wishing the very best for me and it’s because they care and love me.”
It’s a delicate phase every teenager experiences. Fortunately for most, it’s a period not often played out on a worldwide stage, open for scrutiny and speculation. She is learning how much she wants to share with the media in light of stories in which she feels she was inaccurately portrayed. But many believe Ko has handled the burdens and pressures of superstardom with a grace beyond her years. She is now in the process of discovering her own identity separate from her parents and finding her voice as she learns to make her own decisions.
Those decisions began in October of 2016, when Ko split with Jason Hamilton, her caddie of two years, with just three events remaining on her schedule for the year. The two-time major champion is also reportedly making a change in equipment from Callaway to PXG Golf during the off-season, which makes the split with Leadbetter and his team just the latest in a series of big changes by Ko who is only now beginning to realize the scrutiny that surrounds each of her choices.
“They say when it’s working why change?” emailed Ko. “Even though I have made quite a few changes the past few months, I guess I didn’t realize until people started pointing it out to me. But I don’t regret making them.”
In January, Ko began her third season working with Leadbetter and Hogan – setting off a delicate year of give-and-take between a player, her parents and instructors.
On the surface, it looked to be a relationship built for the long haul. The team implemented a plan for Ko that centered around regularly scheduled down time between her weeks on the road which they coined “rest and recovery.”
The plan worked.
In her first 24-months with Leadbetter and Hogan, Ko won eight times including her first major title. She also took home the biggest honors of 2015 – Rolex Player of the Year, Race to CME Globe and the money title. The team celebrated their accomplishments with ice cream cakes at the Leadbetter Golf Academy, which they shared on social media. But on January 7, as Ko began her day of practice at Champions Gate, Ko’s instructors were largely absent.
Hogan spent the morning instructing a group of Europeans who made a vacation out of visiting the Academy. Leadbetter was locked in on the driving range with Michelle Wie with whom he shared a 14-year relationship that dwarfed the two years he’d spent with Ko.
It seemed unusual for the world’s top-ranked player, coming off a record breaking season on Tour, to be practicing on her own.
But Ko wasn’t alone.
It was her father who was by her side, chasing balls around the green as his daughter practiced her short game. They didn’t speak much as he gently tossed golf balls onto the ground for his daughter and gestured to her to move from the grass into the sand. It was a comfortable, choreographed dance that the two had likely performed hundreds if not thousands of times before. After a break for lunch, Ko headed to the practice putting green where her mother kept her company. A camera crew asked Leadbetter and Hogan to come over in order to get some video of them together. They agreed.
It was a familiar scene that would play out around the world throughout 2016 with Ko’s parents stepping in when Leadbetter and Hogan were absent and vice versa.
When Leadbetter was unavailable, as he was for the Tour’s six-week swing through Asia where Ko was unable to crack the top-10, it was her father who stepped in to help. Leadbetter told GolfChannel.com that her father tried to flatten her backswing. But when the Tour made its final stop in Naples, Leadbetter was back at Ko’s side, making adjustments to her downswing 10 minutes before teeing off. This time, her father was the one looking on. That’s when Leadbetter told Golf Digest he turned to her father and said, “This is too much information here.”
Ko fired rounds of 70-62-73-72 to finish in a share of 10th. For the first time in her career, she left Naples without winning any of the Tour’s top honors. Leadbetter told Golfweek he believes he wouldn’t have been fired if Ko had played better on the weekend.
That’s when Ko took control.
Following that event, Ko said she took some time to think about her season and made the decision to part ways with Leadbetter and Hogan.
“I felt like I needed to be a bit more consistent in ball striking, especially with the driver,” Ko said, even though she hit 84 percent of fairways in Naples. “But stopping work with David and Sean was a very hard decision to make, as I really enjoyed working with them and also felt like I learned a lot about my game too.”
When asked what role her struggles in the second half of the season played in her decision to split with Leadbetter and Hogan given her desire for more consistency, Ko says it wasn’t about that at all.
“My decision to stop working with the team was not at all result related.”
Despite her success in 2016 - having won four times on Tour in addition to capturing the silver medal in golf’s return to the Olympic games – she was left feeling stale. She hopes the changes to her caddie, coach and equipment will help reignite the feelings she had at the start of her career.
“I think playing my first tournament of the 2017 season I will get a whole new feeling, just like playing in the Bahamas in my first event as a rookie,” said Ko. “My biggest goal when playing is to enjoy and have fun. Hopefully these changes will give me more confidence.”
At 19-years of age, Ko doesn’t know everything. She doesn’t expect to. That’s why she has her parents to help her - to guide her in making the tough choices in both her life and career.
Like, who will be her next instructor?
It’s the next big decision facing Lydia Ko.