September 14, 2016
Lydia Ko seems too sweet to have a killer instinct.
This is the woman, after all, who left jumbo-sized Kiwi-made chocolate bars in the lockers of all her fellow tour pros the week she ascended to No. 1 in the world, thanking each with handwritten notes for their kindnesses during her rookie season. This is the woman who magnanimously began encouraging Ha Na Jang to win the Coates Golf Championship after her own chances went awry in the final round at the year’s start. This is also the woman who routinely waits around for winners who outplayed her down the stretch, dousing them on the 18th green in victory celebrations when so many other disappointed competitors would be storming off.
And yet Ko showed us with her win at the Evian Championship last year that she can cold heartedly crush the hopes of an entire wave of foes.
Two shots down at Sunday’s start, Ko closed with a bogey-free 8-under-par 63, winning her first major championship in a five-shot runaway.
It was Ko’s masterpiece, enabling her to become the youngest winner of a women’s major at 18 years, 4 months and 20 days old.
It might have been the greatest final-round a woman has ever played to win a major.
No, Evian isn’t Oakmont or St. Andrews, but the canvas Ko painted her masterpiece upon that Sunday was almost irrelevant. It isn’t what distinguished her remarkable effort. It was the fact that her 63 was a whopping seven shots better than anyone else in contention, seven shots better than any of the last 18 players who teed off that Sunday.
As a single day of work goes, that’s Secretariat winning Belmont by 31 lengths.
That’s absurdly impressive separation.
“That’s when we started to understand Lydia Ko can step on people’s throats,” said Golf Channel analyst and LPGA veteran Paige Mackenzie.
That’s how we all saw it, but not David Leadbetter, Ko’s swing coach.
In fact, he says, Ko’s greatness has never been about wanting to beat everybody else.
For her, it’s more like a great musician wanting to coax the most beautiful music she can from a violin or piano.
It’s about Ko wanting to master her craft and relishing the challenge of improving her skills.
“I don’t think she thinks about the opposition at all in terms of, ‘I’ve got to do this to win,’ or ‘I’ve got to do that to win,’” Leadbetter said. “It’s all about her wanting to be the best she can be. If that’s good enough to win, it’s good enough to win. And, obviously, it’s been good enough on many occasions.”
Ko, 19, will be looking to win her 15th LPGA title this week at Evian. She will be looking to win her third major.
While Ko has won seven of her last 25 starts dating back to the end of last year, victories aren’t all that have helped her ride atop the Rolex world rankings for the last 47 weeks. It’s her consistent level of excellence. Nobody’s in contention more from week to week.
Ko has finished T-3 or better in 13 of her last 25 starts. She has top 10s in a staggering 20 of her last 25 starts.
“Sure, Lydia wants to play well,” Leadbetter said. “She wants to play great, but she doesn’t talk about how, ‘I want to be the best.’ Never. She just wants to be the best she can be, and if that achieves greatness, so be it. I think that takes pressure off her.
“A lot of times, players go out and say, ‘I have to shoot 65 today.’ Lydia never goes out like that. She just says, ‘I’m going to play my best today. Hopefully, I drive it well, hit my irons well, putt well and have a good score.’ It’s interesting how she goes about things. I think, in many respects, it helps her stay on an even keel.”
For such a young player, Ko has a rare maturity, an ability to stand back and see the big picture in life, and to understand that tour life isn’t all about her. It’s why she talks about how important being a role model is. It’s why she helps her opponents celebrate. She understands how much they sacrifice, too.
“There are going to be times when I don’t play as good as I would like to, and there are going to be times when I’m holding a trophy at the end of the week,” Ko said. “But to me, I think I need to embrace it all. It’s a learning experience.
“I play the best when I’m having fun, and if I’m out here for so many hours and I’m not enjoying it, it’s not worth it. Trying to put a smile on my face and enjoy it, I think that’s important. What’s great, about our tour, we are all so friendly with each other, so we can make jokes or talk when we’re playing. Obviously, we’re trying to do well at a world-class championship, but at the same time we’re enjoying ourselves out here.”
Ariya Jutanugarn has won an LPGA best five times this year. Ko has won four times, but Ko leads the tour in Rolex Player of the Year points, scoring average, money winnings and Race to the CME Globe points.
Leadbetter says Ko’s tenacity, her desire to give her best on every shot, leads to her consistency.
When Joe DiMaggio was leading the New York Yankees to 10 American League pennants and nine World Series titles, he was asked what drove him to play so hard every day.
“Because there might have been somebody in the stands who had never seen me play before and might never see me again,” DiMaggio said.
Leadbetter sees that kind of special quality in Ko.
“You see this kind of thing in Jack Nicklaus and the greats,” Leadbetter said. “You never see their shoulders droop. It’s almost as if they’re trying their best on each and every shot. That’s Lydia. She never gives up.”