— By David Walsh
HURRICANE, W.Va. — Lydia Ko has performed quite well in her professional golf career, amassing $10 million-plus in earnings since she started playing for pay in 2013.
Monday, the New Zealand resident brought her talents to Sleepy Hollow Golf Club for the 22nd annual Toyota-Special Olympics West Virginia Golf Classic. She was the featured guest, did a clinic prior to play and hit shots with participants during the competition.
“This is a great thing they’re doing to raise more awareness,” Ko said of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia, Inc., which underwrites the event so all proceeds can go to West Virginia Special Olympics. “Seeing some of the faces of the Special Olympians, it’s very inspiring. On a daily basis I think we complain about all the things we wish we had. And there are people who have less in the eye and they’re so incredibly talented. I’m grateful to be part of something like this with such a long history.”
Toyota is closing in on $1 million raised in the event it started in 1997.
Ko, 22, was born in Seoul, South Korea. She and her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was an infant. She gained citizenship at age 12.
Ko’s career is chock full of achievements. She was the top-ranked women’s amateur for 130 straight weeks before turning pro in 2013. Before that move, Ko became the youngest winner ever of an LPGA Tour event. She was 15 years, 4 months when she won the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open (as an amateur).
Ko’s awards list just continued to swell. She’s been LPGA Rookie of the Year (2014) and LPGA Rolex Player of the Year (2015). On Feb. 2, 2015, at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, Ko became the No. 1-ranked player in women’s professional golf, making her the youngest player of either gender to achieve that position. She was the youngest player to ever win a women’s major with her triumph in the 2015 Evian Championship. She was 18 years, 4 months and 20 days old.
Ko has 20 career wins, 15 coming on the LPGA Tour. Two wins have been majors. In April 2014, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Throw in the 2016 Summer Olympics where Ko represented New Zealand and won the silver medal in women’s golf.
“I’ve been very fortunate about things that have happened in my career,” Ko said in an interview prior to her clinic.
“So far the things I’ve dreamed of and much more haven happened for me. So yeah, it’s kind of like you can never give the right reason. It’s not like a math question where there is a right answer.
“At the time I was an amateur, I was ranked No. 1 amateur (world) and I was able to go play some LPGA events before turning pro that really helped me with the experience of what it’s like on tour. I didn’t feel like a complete rookie. I got to meet some of the ladies out there. It made the transition a lot easier.”
Just five years ago, Ko became the youngest millionaire on the LPGA in her first full season. She racked up all that cash in 16 tournaments.
“It’s hard,” Ko said. “What works for someone may not work for another. I think I’ve been very lucky to have very supportive teams throughout these times. There might have been changes. I always felt like it (support teams) have been a crucial part of who I am today.”
Since 2018, golf life has been different for Ko. She missed the cut in two recent events, one the Women’s British Open. She doesn’t have a top-five finish in 2019, last won in April 2018 and is No. 24 in the LPGA rankings. Renowned teacher David Leadbetter, who worked with Ko from 2013 to 2016, offered his views for the phenom’s decline. It’s not all coaching, equipment or caddie changes.
In an interview with New Zealand’s Radio Sport, he said he believes the problem lies with her parents. He said she needed to take some time away from golf and that she also needs to “find her own way” away from her parents. Since the two split, Ko has won just once.
Ko fired back an answer and photo on Instagram. Ko showed a calm demeanor Monday when she talked about her slide. There are seven events left on the 2019 LPGA Tour schedule. The finale is the CME Group Tour Championship on Nov. 21-24 in Naples, Fla. She currently is No. 37 in the CMB rankings.
“Everybody makes changes, makes decisions to improve,” Ko said with a smile. “I believe that if you’re at the same spot doing the same thing that obviously works, you try to maintain that. Everyone is improving. You can see that by the scores on the LPGA. Every week, even though we’re playing the same course year after year, the scores are improving.
“Before it might be three great rounds, one OK and you might have won. It’s almost like you need four great rounds to win. Everyone is doing something to get better. You might feel like you’re on quicksand, not going forward. There’s still a few events left for me. All I can do is stay patient, keep working at it and go from there.”