The secret to Lydia Ko's success is simple - hard work and more hard work, writes Toby Robson.
Lydia Ko may have been born in Korea but her golfing success was most definitely made in New Zealand.
The 15-year-old Aucklander is the talk of the golfing world after winning the Canadian Open last week and not just because of her age.
She is the youngest winner in the LPGA Tour's 62-year history and now ranked 45th in the world heading into the British Open at Royal Liverpool from September 13 to 16.
She appears to be a sporting equivalent of the perfect storm, as level-headed as she is talented.
But is Ko just an athletic fluke?
Not entirely, according to her coach, Guy Wilson, who has overseen Ko's development since her mother Tina walked her 5-year-old daughter into his Pupuke Golf Club pro shop in 2002.
He saw her talent early and has marvelled at her work ethic and dedication but Wilson sees no reason other Kiwi kids can't follow in his star pupil's spike marks.
"No I don't think so. The drive, the focus, the understanding to simply just do it without being distracted or going off on a tangent is the key," he said in the wake of Ko's latest history making feat.
"Lydia hits more golf balls than anyone. She just doesn't get fazed. She just keeps beating balls, beating balls, beating balls, working on it every day."
Wilson is often asked why New Zealand golfers of Asian descent, particularly Koreans, tend to fare better than their European counterparts?
"The difference is the Koreans are happy to invest in it. They will spend money on it, do it properly, get the coaching.
"They aren't like the average Kiwi kid whose parents buy some clubs and say go and play golf."
Wilson doesn't have raw numbers, but says its obvious Korean golfers are thriving in the New Zealand environment.
Ko's success has surpassed the deeds of other bright prospects such as Cecilia Cho, Sharon Ahn, Danny Lee and Jae An.
"With the Kiwi kids, hardly any of them turn pro. There might be one or two but they tend to turn pro and think, ‘sweet I turned pro', then they don't make a cent and end up working in a bank or something."
Wilson understands the reasons why. In fact, he says he turned to coaching because he realised he didn't have the focus or discipline required to be a playing professional.
"But I believe if you were taught the routine of what you did at the age of 7, that you did it every day, every week, then maybe when it came to those ages where you go on a tangent in your teens . . . it wouldn't be such a big issue.
"We have a lot of kids now wanting to do the same thing. They've seen it happen and seen that it works . . . a lot of players here at the institute understand the time they need to spend and they're just doing it.
"They realise the pay-off isn't now, it's in three or four years."
The institute, igolf is the Albany-based business where Wilson is the director of instruction.
FOUNDED by Craig Dixon, Brad Takai and David Niethe in 2008 it is essentially a one-stop shop for aspiring golfers.
They have brought coaching, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning and mental performance under one roof, allowing them to tailor programmes to an individual's needs.
Wilson says it has played a big part in Ko's development in recent years.
"She sees me generally five to six times a week, the physio twice a week, the personal trainer twice a week and works on the mental performance side once every two weeks," he said. "It's proven that's what works, that that's what it takes.
"Previously, those things weren't linked together. The personal trainers were trying to boost the guy up, the physio was saying, ‘gee you are getting into a whole lot of bad positions in your golf swing but I don't know anything about golf', then the pro is saying, ‘just keep doing that thousands of times . . . everyone was fighting against each other."
And that used to include the national body, who took a blanket approach to coaching the country's most talented players.
For years, Wilson would not allow Ko to attend New Zealand Golf's training camps.
"Because it was contradictory to what we wanted," he said. "And with her being so young and Tina, her mum, being naive in golfing terms, they would just listen to everything said at the camp and that would steer her down the wrong track."
But it's about here Wilson begins to sing the praises of golf's national body, who he says has listened, adapted and moulded what he believes is now a highly effective system.
"They started heavily supporting the players' primary providers and then, at a secondary level, getting the players in to camps every so often. If we [coaches] wanted to be there we can be. I'd say that changed probably a year and a half ago, maybe longer. It's very, very good where it is now. New Zealand Golf supports us to support Lydia."
NZG'S talent and coach development manager Gregg Thorpe confirmed a definite shift toward a more holistic approach.
NZG no longer sees its core role being "technical intervention" but rather a pathway of aspiration, inspiration and assistance.
That means different things to different players. Some need coaching, others don't but they all benefit.
"In terms of the impact we've had on Lydia? We're secondary service providers, a part of her service provision team," Thorpe says.
"We'd love to share the kudos for the development of Lydia equally with igolf. The time and energy that Guy has put in and the other guys at igolf, without that it wouldn't have happened. But we are certainly a part of that and our programmes are an important part of that relationship."
National training camps and the Srixon Academy were less about fixing swings, but remained an important part a player's development.
Though Ko's early success was achieved without academies or national team selection, Thorpe has no doubt she's benefited from the national system.
The opportunity to rub shoulders with, and measure herself against, her peers, and to compete internationally was immeasurable.
"It does a number of things none more than to inspire them to work hard and reset their goals," Thorpe said. "And for her in particular it was a fast track from the Australian events to international events in America and the UK."
And NZG is also the link in a financial chain that's often the make or break of aspiring players.
Wilson's unsure how Ko would have fared without that help.
"Obviously, there is a massive expense in what we do for Lydia at the institute of golf compared to what support we get finance wise," he said.
"Firstly, Lydia works her ass off and people start supporting her because of that, which then helps reimburse what we are doing.
"But they [NZG] support and supplement and dictate everything for us.
"NZG are the ones who drive the whole system in terms of funding. Someone comes to them and says, ‘we'd like to support Lydia', they say, ‘OK, this is the way we've got to do it, this it what it's going to cost, this is what it's for and so on and so forth.
"It's got to be done properly. The rules of amateur golf are fickle and the last thing we want to do is cross any of those boundaries."
Neither Wilson, Ko, nor igolf can benefit from her success including the $370,000 payday she had to forgo in Canada, under amateur golf rules.
That makes the expertise of NZG a vital cog in the wheel.
If Wilson is right, that wheel won't stop turning the moment it spins Ko away to the professional ranks. And Thorpe says the system is ready.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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