OPINION: "I want to be remembered like Annika or Lorena."
Lydia Ko wants to be more than Tiger Woods. She wants to be the best player in the world. She wants to be the best player ever, perhaps. But she also wants to put something back. She wants to be remembered for being friendly with the fans. Ko wants to be Tiger Mickelson.
This vivid ambition may explain why some people in New Zealand turned on Ko after she parted with her long-term coach Guy Wilson. Some blamed her new management company IMG. Some viewed it as a betrayal. Some thought that maybe Ko had turned smiling assassin and was already getting a little too large for her golf shoes.
These were understandable reactions. There is a reason why ‘Loyal' is akin to the New Zealand national anthem. But the reaction was also wrong. Lydia Ko's decision to move on was mature and was taken by Tiger at the same age for very similar reasons.
But let's dispel a few myths first. IMG had nothing to do with the replacement of Ko's coach. I have had this confirmed by a senior source at the company and they will be making a statement in the coming weeks.
It is not in IMG's interests to meddle in Ko's coaching choice. It is a no-win situation for them. If Ko reaches greatness, it will be down to Ko. If she fails, it would be blamed on IMG. The giant American management company does not make bad business decisions like that. They sometimes might find a caddie for a new pro, but they do not interfere with the coaching.
The reason for the change was technical. Ko did not like finishing third in last year's Australian Open after sharing the lead going into the final round. Ko did not like the hook she hit off the first tee, a shot that led to her dropping three shots in two holes. She felt she had a weakness. She felt that the club could get shut at the top of her swing, leading to a hook under pressure.
In our golfing language it was next to nothing. Mickey Wright, one of the best women golfers of all time, did a similar thing. But Ko was not comfortable. And so she began to think about change.
This is entirely understandable. At a similar age Woods changed golf instructor. John Anselmo, a brilliant coach, was replaced by Butch Harmon. Woods then flattened out his swing to eliminate ‘hookitis.'
It was not a criticism of Anselmo. No one man remains a font of all knowledge and Anselmo was a huge influence on the golfer that Woods became. Wilson remains a superb coach. Nothing has changed there. Ko just needed a fresh pair of eyes.
Greg Turner says, "I have the utmost respect for Guy Wilson. But the chance that the best coach for you when you are ten-years-old is the same person as when you are in the top ten in the world is reasonably slim. I don't view it as a great gamble or a huge move. I view it as a natural progression.
"There is no one to help you when you are standing on the 16th tee in the British Open one shot behind. Self-awareness is a big asset for a player. But sometimes when you are going through some remedial work on your swing, you want your coach around."
Wilson was not able to be around as he was unwilling to travel with Ko. Wilson has other players, he has a life, and the tour is a soulless place. He made the right decision. And so has Ko. Having been with the phenom for so long, Wilson must have been a father figure to Ko. But on the pro golf tour a player needs to be self-reliant. It is a feature of the greats.
So Ko cut Wilson loose. It does not make him any less of a coach or any less of a contender for coach of the year. It just makes Ko even more mature than we suspected. She wanted to tweak a few things. She likes the way that Hee Young Park swings a golf club. And so Ko decided to approach Sean Hogan, Park's coach.
That also meant approaching David Leadbetter, because Hogan works at the Leadbetter Academy.
Leadbetter is the man who refined Nick Faldo into Britain's greatest golfer after he split with his teenage coach Ian Connelly. Leadbetter is also a sensitive and intelligent man.
The first thing he said to Ko was, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Ko was sure.
They had their first sessions towards the end of last year. They made a very slight change to Ko's grip and got her slightly closer to the ball. She then won the Swinging Skirts.
Leadbetter says, "If she plays well it will be because she's a great player. If she doesn't, we will be the bad guys. It's not about re-inventing her swing. It's about guiding. She has an unbelievable temperament; nothing rattles her. Kelly, my wife, said it looks like she sort of walks on water. There is this aura about her and I think she can be one of the greats. She reminds me so much of Annika."
It is a big year for Ko. Can she win the opening major, the Kraft Nabisco, where 11 different players have prevailed in the past 11 years? The US Open is to be played at Pinehurst, a tough course with good New Zealand memories. Then there is Hoylake, the LPGA and the Evian, where Ko has already finished second. Ko has five chances to make even more history.
Rory McIlroy is still with his formative coach. Tiger is not. There is no one magic solution. But Ko deserves rather more respect for her decision. There is no room for sentiment in ambition. And Lydia Ko just wants to be the best.
- Sunday Star Times
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