Lydia Ko could be greatest female golfer ever

KO BACKED: Lydia Ko's new co-coach believes there is ''nothing stopping'' the Kiwi becoming the greatest women golfer ever.
KO BACKED: Lydia Ko's new co-coach believes there is ''nothing stopping'' the Kiwi becoming the greatest women golfer ever.

Lydia Ko's new co-coach believes there is ''nothing stopping'' the Kiwi golfing sensation from displacing Annika Sorenstam as the greatest women's golfer ever.

David Leadbetter, along with Sean Hogan, became Ko's coach last December, after the world no 4 controversially decided to split with Guy Wilson, her long-time Auckland-based mentor.

Leadbetter, who has coached 18 major winners in both the PGA and LPGA, is globally recognised as one of the best coaches in golf - and runs the Leadbetter Golf Academy near Orlando, Florida.

Ko recently bought a townhouse near the academy, where she and her family now base themselves during the LPGA season.

Leadbetter travelled to Palm Springs to watch and assist Ko at this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship in Palm Springs, while Hogan remained in Florida.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Sunday Star-Times - his first about Ko since this year's LPGA tour began - Leadbetter praised the Kiwi teenager's 'Mona Lisa'-like abilities, before asking for patience from the golfing public, and warning about the risks of burnout for the young star.

He also opened up about the slight tweaks he and Hogan are making on Ko's swing.

''You have to be patient - she is only 16,'' he told the Star-Times in Palm Springs, California this week.

''I think everyone push the envelope a bit, and if she has a bad tournament say 'what's wrong with her?' ''These girls are good out here. You're going to have your ups and downs. She didn't have a particularly good week last week  - but it's about patience.

''Just watching her career evolve will be fascinating. She has all the attributes, and bar injury or some unforeseen circumstances, nothing is really stopping her becoming the very best.'' Sorenstam won ten majors during her 16-year career on the LPGA tour, and is used the ultimate standard against which all other top women's golfers games are measured.

''People like Julie Rankin, obviously a fine player in her own right, has said 'I think this girl could be one of the very best,'' Leadbetter said.

''That means you have to compare her to someone like Annika [Sorenstam]. That's possible.

''She's got a big head start on Annika too - she didn't start winning until she was 25. Lydia's 16. If she keeps going at this rate, who knows what she can achieve.'' Ko became interested in Leadbetter and Hogan's techniques late last year, after the golfer's father Hong was impressed by the swing of Hee Young Park, one of the pair's pupils.

She first met the pair last November shortly after making her professional debut at the CME Group Titleholders tournament in Naples, Florida - spending three days at Leadbetter's academy, working with the pair.

The decision to leave Wilson came a month later - one that Leadbetter said he initially discouraged the teenager to make.

''We didn't go out to seek her,'' he said. ''She was looking for a US-based coach. Guy had done a tremendous job with her.  ''I mean, why would you want to change anything that has really worked that well? She has had a tremendous start to her young career.

''To be honest with you, we were almost discouraging her to change. She's been on such a good track, and Guy and her obviously formed a close relationship.

''But the fact is that he is over there, and she is over here. It's not convenient really. So she has based herself down where we are in Orlando.'' Leadbetter famously rebuilt Nick Faldo's swing in the mid-80s - before coaching him to victories in six majors.

He has also coached Greg Norman, Ernie Els, and Nick Price - and is the mentor for a host of current LPGA stars, including world no 2 Suzann Pettersen.

The 61-year-old is full of praise for Ko's much-envied swing - revealing the tweaks he and Hogan have made on it have been ''minor''.

''As they say, you don't mess up the Mona Lisa,'' he said.

''The important thing is we've continued on the same line as [Guy Wilson].

''Our approach doesn't really look any different. We've just maybe suggested a couple of little things.

''She wanted to draw the ball a little bit more consistently so we've done a couple of little things in that regard. [Also] a minor grip change - just minor cosmetic sort of stuff.

If Ko is able to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship - or any LPGA major this year - she will become the youngest major winner in golf history, beating the record of Young Tom Morris, who won the 1868 British Open as a 17-year-old.

Despite Ko's skills - and potential to become one of the greats - Leadbetter warned against possible burnout from the Kiwi teenager.

''I think, going forward, she has got to learn a little bit to pace herself,'' he said.

''She's not an amateur anymore, going to school and rushing out to play as much golf as she can. She's doing it 24/7. So she has to pace herself.

''The thing you are weary about with prodigies is they don't burn themselves out. You can't go at it 110 per cent without any rest. It's okay when you are 16 or 17, but it gets old after a while.

''All of a sudden, injuries start to pop up. Your mind starts to get fatigued. You start blaming your swing. You work harder - and it's a sort of perpetuating thing.

''To have a long career out here, injury-free, you have to learn to pace yourself. The greats have done it. You've got to take that time off, whether you go to the beach or do nothing - or do something totally away from the game.

''You can't keep pushing the envelope. So, there are little things she has to learn.''

Fairfax Media