It’s hard to envision a more outwardly well-adjusted superstar golfer than Lydia Ko. On and off the course, she seems serene, confident, thoughtful and fun. It’s an impression the players she’s been beating like a drum unanimously confirm, and one which the 19-year-old’s own words and actions reinforce. Ko seems to possess the rare combination of talent and temperament that seems perfectly suited to a long reign at the top of the game.
But, it appears, even Lydia Ko has issues.
According to David Leadbetter, the venerated swing coach Ko fired on Tuesday after a three-year association that produced 12 LPGA victories including two majors, Ko’s golf game is being hampered mentally and physically by hovering, and sometimes intrusive, parents.
“At this point, their sole occupation is taking care of Lydia’s every need,” said Leadbetter of Ko’s father, Gil Hong Ko, and mother, Bon Sook Hyon, both of whom regularly travel with their daughter.
“They tell her when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to practice and what to practice. And they expect her to win every tournament. They are good people, who love their daughter and want the very best for her, and Lydia has never been to college and is still young. But they are naive about golf. And at some point, they’ve got to let the bird fly from the nest. I would often think, ‘It’s not easy coaching three people.’ ”
Leadbetter is familiar with the affects of the close bonds Korean parents traditionally have with their offspring. In 1998, he parted company with Se Ri Pak, who had recently won the U.S. Women’s Open, after two years, citing parental and sponsor interference. And since 2003, he’s been coaching Michelle Wie, whose parents, BJ and Bo, have always been a regular presence and strong influence in their daughter’s up-and-down career.
Leadbetter admits being disappointed by the breakup with Ko. Although it will get him off the hot seat as the man who changed—the harshest critics would say ruined—her swing to encourage a distance-increasing draw, Leadbetter will miss working and interacting with a prodigy who is also warm and friendly.
“It’s a shame it didn’t work out, but it goes with the territory,” he said. “I care very much for Lydia. She’s a wonderful person. But I’m concerned.”
Ko may be No. 1 in the world and carry herself with equipoise, but in a sport in which self sufficiency is the hallmark of the greats, Leadbetter believes she needs to finally become the captain of her own ship.
That she hasn’t been is the chief reason the Ko camp is gaining a reputation for making impetuous decisions. A harbinger was her rookie year of 2014, when Ko changed caddies seven times. She finally settled on Jason Hamilton, with whom she won 10 tournaments in two years. But in October, with three weeks to go in a season in which she was fighting to repeat as Rolex Player of the Year, she fired Hamilton.
“The timing of that didn’t make any sense,” Leadbetter said.
“And at some point, they’ve got to let the bird fly from the nest. I would often think, ‘It’s not easy coaching three people.’ ” —David Leadbetter on the influence of Lydia Ko's parents
In order to begin working with Leadbetter and Sean Hogan in late 2013, Ko had to end an 11-year-association with her childhood coach in New Zealand, Guy Wilson, and observers such as fellow Kiwi Steve Williams noted the apparent coldness of that transaction. Most recently, Ko decided to change equipment companies, from Callaway to PXG.
Leadbetter feels that a habit of deferring decisions to others has caused Ko to be indecisive on the course. In the final round of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, which Ko entered leading by one, she hesitated on her second shot to the par-5 ninth hole at CordeValle, ultimately choosing to hit a wood from a difficult lie (a shot Hamilton endorsed) rather than laying farther back with an iron. The shot didn’t come off, and Ko made a double bogey, going on to lose the championship by two strokes.
“Lydia wanted to lay up and knew better than to go for it,” said Leadbetter, “but she didn’t trust herself enough.”
Ko’s biggest goal in 2016, with her father’s strong urging, Leadbetter says, was winning the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. She would earn the silver, beaten by Inbee Park, and then went into the worst stretch of her brief career. Leadbetter said Ko’s father, who has a background in physical education, became more involved with her swing during a stretch of tournaments in Asia (where Leadbetter and Hogan were not present), which brought on some bad swing habits.
“The proposed solution is always to hit more and more balls, when Lydia actually needed to be on the practice range less and in the gym more,” Leadbetter said. “The truth is, she’s a great golfer, but not a great athlete. To keep up her performance, she needs to keep up her strength and flexibility, or it affects her swing and her energy. When her performance went down, it wasn’t good karma the last few weeks.”
Ko came to the season-finale CME Group Tour Championship with a chance to salvage all the year’s top awards with a win. And following a long range session with Leadbetter after an opening 68, Ko shot a 62 on Friday to take a three-stroke lead.
But on Saturday, Leadbetter said, Ko’s father was on the practice tee with her for her warmup. “He had a comment after every swing,” said Leadbetter. “And some of it was in Korean, so I didn’t know what advice that might be. You know, more than anything a player needs peace before a round. I finally had to say to him, ‘This is too much information here.’ ”
Ko played poorly on the weekend, shooting 72-73, ultimately losing Player of the Year to Ariya Jutanugarn, and the Vare Trophy for season scoring average by the narrowest of margins. “When she was poised to go forward, as she always has, she went backward,” Leadbetter said. “Something was not quite right mentally.”
The instructor hoped the end of the season would bring reflection, realization and some new directions, but, from his perspective, it was not to be.
“I sent her a text about starting to plan for next year, but she didn’t respond for a couple of days, which wasn’t a great sign,” Leadbetter said. "When she called me up, she said, ‘David, this is really hard to say, but I really want to make a change.’ I said, ‘Lydia, if things had turned out differently at the CME, or you had won the Women’s Open or the KPMG [a major which Ko lost in a playoff to Brooke Henderson], would we be having this conversation right now?’ And she said, ‘Everything is not about performance.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”
So far in her career, Ko has broken many record for being the youngest to reach important milestones, including becoming youngest world No. 1 player at age 17. But Leadbetter believes no matter what coach she works with going forward, future gains will come more slowly. And how the Ko camp handles that will be a key determinant in whether or not she continues toward becoming one of the LPGA’s true all-time greats.
“What becomes clear after a few years is that competitive golf is hard,” Leadbetter said. “Lydia was oblivious to that when she came in at 15 and won everything. She naturally thought, ‘This is fun, I’m really good, this is easy.’ But as time goes on, it becomes more of a job. The pressure, the expectations, and the obligations become wearing. And the competition gets stronger. As you push harder, the momentum can start to go the other way. This year, I thought it was telling that Lydia made more double bogeys than she ever has. Above all, you need a clear mind.
“My parting words to Lydia were ‘Take control of your life. Take control of your golf game. Make more of your own decisions,’ ” Leadbetter said. “And she said, ‘I’m actually working on that.’ Which was good to hear.”