Lydia Ko pumps her fist after sinking a putt on No. 18 to win last year’s Marathon Classic at Highland Meadows. It’s her last victory on the LPGA Tour, her longest winless stretch since joining the tour three years ago. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
Lydia Ko returns to Highland Meadows Golf Club this week as a two-time winner of the Marathon Classic and the tournament’s defending champion. The 20-year-old phenom is a fan favorite, the No. 4-ranked golfer in the world, and she’s already won 14 times on the LPGA Tour.
But for the first time in her young but immensely fruitful career, Ko is experiencing stretches of adversity. She’s in the midst of the longest drought of her career, with zero wins since last year’s triumph here, and she’s finished outside the top 10 in the past four majors.
FLASHBACK: Ko wins 2016 LPGA Marathon Classic
“I’ve had a few top 10s [in nonmajors] this year, so that’s definitely a confidence builder,” Ko said. “I just haven’t had all four rounds come together. That’s what’s missing. Overall, there are a lot of things that I can get better at. I just have to work hard to improve.”
Ko is a victim of her own outsized success, which has created a swath of unrealistic expectations, akin to Tiger Woods during his prime. She became the top-ranked women’s golfer at 17 and won 14 tournaments in less than three full seasons as a professional, including two majors.
MARATHON CLASSIC: Everything you need to know for the LPGA tournament at BCSN.tv/MarathonClassic
During a 14-major stretch, from 2013-16, Ko had eight top-10 finishes and two wins.
In short, Ko made golf look easy. She possessed a smooth swing, an enviable putting stroke, and an unflappable demeanor on the golf course. She unquestionably was the best player in the world and entering a route to becoming the greatest of all time.
Not to mention, her constant smile, even in the face of defeat, lit up the LPGA Tour.
But after collecting the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, Ko has undergone radical change. She split from longtime swing coach David Leadbetter, has gone through multiple caddies, and switched from Callaway to PXG clubs. The alterations brought a torrent of questions.
“It’s not easy to make all these decisions,” Ko said.
“But I feel like I did make the right decisions. I have no regrets in all the decisions I’ve made.”
The dismissal of caddie Jason Hamilton, who Ko had on the bag for 10 wins and two majors, was most puzzling. It sparked curiosity about how difficult it can be working for Ko.
In her first year on tour, she had seven caddies. In April, after nine events with Gary Matthews, she moved on to Peter Godfrey.
“I wish her the best, but she’s gone through so many caddies, she needs to wake up on caddie-player relationships,” Matthews told Golf World. “Otherwise, she’ll just keep doing it. In all honesty, there is no communication in the whole camp.
“You never know anything or are told anything.”
Leadbetter sounded similar alarms after a three-year partnership with Ko ended, but he targeted the superstar’s parents, father Gil Hong Ko and mother Bon Sook Hyon.
“At this point, their sole occupation is taking care of Lydia’s every need,” Leadbetter told Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz. “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 previously worked with Se Ri Pak and Michelle Wie, relationships that also included parental interference. On the equipment change front, PXG reportedly offered a better financial package than Callaway.
“When I first tried the clubs, I really liked how they felt and the results I was seeing,” Ko said. “I didn’t feel like I was losing anything. It was more like I was gaining. It takes a little bit of time to get used to new clubs, but I like what I’ve seen.
“The team at PXG has been great in giving me what I want and allowing me to play with confidence.”
Last season marked a drop in distance and accuracy off the tee for Ko. She lost almost four yards to rank 126th on tour at 246.7 yards off the tee.
At the end of the year, Ko went five consecutive tournaments without a top 10 and finished outside the top 40 three times. In the past month, Ko has gone from No. 1 in the world to fourth.
There are murmurs about possible burnout because of so much success so quickly. Ko also hasn’t shied away from her declaration to retire at age 30 to become a psychologist.
At the conclusion of last season, she admitted a monthlong breather with the golf clubs locked away was a wel comed refresher.
Through all the turbulent months, Ko has remained her serene self, retaining a level of graciousness that makes her revered at tour stops around the world, even among her peers. Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan called Ko “amazing.”
“The way she handles herself, she’s so mature and relaxed and in control,” Sheehan said. “It’s astonishing.”
A trip to Sylvania could be the elixir Ko needs. In addition to her two wins, she has two top 10s — seventh and third — in four appearances. Ko lauded Highland Meadows for its condition and setup, saying it doesn’t suit any one type of player. Unless of course that player is Ko, who has never shot over par in 16 career rounds at Highland Meadows.
“I’m super excited to come back,” she said. “Obviously, I have a lot of great memories there. It’s exciting to go back to a place you’ve won. Ohio has been a great place for me. I won the U.S. Amateur in Cleveland, so I’ve had a lot of great memories.”
Ending a yearlong winless streak would add to Ko’s fondness for Ohio and, in particular, the northwest portion of the state. She’s become an adopted daughter of the area, with fans adoring her, en route to her two wins.
“It’s really cool,” Ko said. “Obviously being from New Zealand, I’m far away from home. It’s really nice to go to places and get support. I feel like everytime I go back to the Marathon Classic, the fans have been very supportive. That’s one of the things that brings me back to play.
“It’s that kind of love. They’re excited to see us and we’re excited to play there. I’ve really been thankful for their support.”