Sometimes sudden success obscures the difficulty of the road traveled. When winning is all you’ve known, mediocrity can feel like a bottomless swamp – especially when social media gives anyone with a keyboard the instant expertise to second guess.
All that makes the delayed gratification of Lydia Ko’s 16th LPGA Tour victory at the LOTTE Championship extremely satisfying. Ko knows the price paid and the fact she’s traveled the road to redemption with a smile and a kind word for all – even her critics – makes her triumph Saturday proof that goodness is rewarded.
“I said to myself trust my training, and this morning Sean texted me: ‘Hey, just trust and conviction,’ and I wrote that on my pin sheet today,” Ko said about her pre-round pep talk with instructor Sean Foley.
Then Lydia closed with a 65 to finish at 28-under-par 260, seven strokes clear of Inbee Park, Sei Young Kim, Nelly Korda and Leona Maguire for her first win in nearly three years and second in five.
“I said to myself, ‘Hey, I feel like the winner's already chosen but we obviously don't know, so I'm just going to go out there and play the best golf I can and see where I finish at the end of the day,’” Ko said.
The problem with success at an early age is that it makes winning look easy. In May 1997, when Tigermania raged following the Masters victory a month earlier by 21-year-old Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus was asked if Woods is the best ever. After appropriate praise, Nicklaus offered these words of caution:
“Let’s see how he handles it when he has to struggle.”
Woods was so good for so long, it was more than a dozen years before adversity cluttered his road to success. Then, Woods was hit by a perfect storm of physical, technical and personal challenges. His body broke down; his swing broke down; and the aura of invincibility surrounding his seemingly superhuman abilities was shattered by all-too-human revelations.
All that made Tiger’s victory at the 2019 Masters – 11 years after his last major championship and 14 years after his most-recent Green Jacket – one of the more compelling achievements in the history of sports.
Like Woods, Ko knew success early. Her first LPGA Tour victory at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open came at 15. In February 2015, at 17, she was the youngest to reach No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings and that September the youngest to win a major at the Evian Championship. While still a teenager, Ko had 14 victories, including two majors, in 81 LPGA Tour starts plus a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Then someone turned off the spigot. Ko went 43 starts before victory No. 15 at the 2018 Mediheal Championship and another 59 starts before victory No. 16 at the LOTTE Championship.
“I was putting more pressure on myself and doubting myself,” Ko said. “I've been very fortunate to have a very supportive family and team and friends that have just built the confidence in me. Sean gives me so many great wisdoms and builds that confidence in myself where at times I didn't feel like I had it.”
When asked if victory No. 16 was especially sweet, Ko laughed, a joyous part of her personality that adversity seems unable to sidetrack.
“I remember when I was Sweet 16,” said Ko, who turns 24 on April 24. “Not so long ago, actually. Obviously, waited a little while from my last one in San Francisco to this one, and I had waited a while for my 15th win at Mediheal as well. So, yeah, definitely nice.”
Success at an early age delays the bumps and bruises that pave the path to learning in life. Over the five years since she was the best player in women’s golf, Ko has learned about much more than striking a golf ball.
“Because golf is such a huge factor in my life, I just looked down one road,” she said. “This week, I've kind of had my blinds open and just enjoying being here. I think that's almost helped me to be a little bit more relaxed. Just accept, if things go great, that's great. If not, I can't do much about it. I know when the times it doesn't it's going to hurt, but those moments make me stronger.”
Part of Ko’s tumble from the top can be attributed to the talent that poured into women’s golf while she was No. 1. After Ko won the 2014 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, she was followed in that honor by Sei Young Kim, In Gee Chun, Sung Hyun Park, Jin Young Ko and Jeongeun Lee6 – all of whom have won majors.
Throw in Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, Nelly and Jessica Korda, Danielle Kang, Nasa Hataoka, Ariya Jutanugarn and others and the playing field got a lot more difficult. And when Ko made changes in equipment, coaches, caddies and even her physical appearance, those who love to second guess pounced.
“I don't think I ever felt like I didn't love the game anymore,” Ko said. “I think there were times where you keep trying and things just don't go your way. You doubt yourself and don't know if what you're working on is the right things.”
But Ko worked through it all with a smile. Trust and conviction were instincts when Lydia was young. Now they are knowledge based on experience. And that creates the feeling that, as good as she’s been, the best may be yet to come for Lydia Ko.