RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – The sweeping changes came with risk, of course.
Lydia Ko returns to the ANA Inspiration this week fresh off only her second missed cut in 95 LPGA starts, which only ratchets up questions about why the Rolex world No. 1 decided to make so many changes at the same time while still reigning atop the game.
Yes, it’s too early to know how changing her caddie, coach and equipment at the end of last year will ultimately affect her, but all those moves are thrust in the spotlight this week, with even more attention on her than usual. She’s the defending champion whose No. 1 world ranking hangs in the balance after eight winless months.
If No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn wins this week, Ko’s run at No. 1 will end after 75 consecutive weeks.
For Ko, this is all static noise she is so skilled at tuning out. It’s partly why she has reigned at No. 1 for more consecutive weeks than anyone but Lorena Ochoa (158) and Yani Tseng (109).
“I actually can’t remember the last time I checked the Rolex rankings,” Ko said. “When I get the odd social media pop-up of, 'Hey, it’s closing down to this much,’ That’s when I know. But other than that, I don’t know.”
For other golf observers, Ko’s sweeping changes create curiosity about gifted players, the pressure to keep improving, and the delicate nature of confidence.
“I hate it when young players change their golf swing, period,” Golf Channel analyst Jerry Foltz said. “I hate it when they change instructors, because, honestly, I think you lose what got you there. A lot of people then spend the rest of their careers trying to get back to what got them there. . . . Now, that being said, those players at the highest level have proven that they can do it and it does take time.”
Hall of Famer and Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin believes what Ko is going through in her still short career is a product of the changing times and the mindset that technology like high-tech video and TrackMan create.
“There is this great temptation today that I don't believe was there 30 and 40 years ago to try to create something better and better, and more and more perfect, and more and more infallible,” Rankin said. “I think that temptation for some players is too great. It works for some of the very few, but sometimes even when it works, there is something to be lost by not playing with what brung you.”
Golf Channel’s Karen Stupples believes the pressure so many other young players like Jutanugarn are applying is another reason Ko made so many changes.
“They want to be No. 1, and they’re improving and getting better all the time,” Stupples said. “It’s hard as a player to sit there and watch the new players coming up, chasing you down, without thinking, 'I need to do something to my own game. I need to get better. I need to improve.’”
Ko left her youth coach back in New Zealand, Guy Wilson, to hire David Leadbetter in November of 2013. She eventually adopted a version of Leadbetter’s A-Swing, but after a lot of success in their first two-and-a-half years together, she began struggling in the second half of last year.
At the start of this year, Ko left Leadbetter for Gary Gilchrist. He has helped her move back to a one-plane swing, more like the swing of her youth.
Ko had three top 10s before missing the cut at the Kia Classic last week. “I think the transition has actually been pretty easy, very smooth,” she said.
Ko, who turns 20 on April 24, likes the way her ball striking is coming around under Gilchrist. She really wanted to improve her driving, to hit more fairways, and she’s doing that. She’s 10th on tour in driving accuracy. She’s 27th in greens in regulation.
Of all the changes Ko has made, the most subtle and surprising are to her putting. Before this year, she used two different grips to putt. She went left-hand low on shorter putts and conventional on longer putts. She abandoned left-hand low this year to go completely conventional. She also has made a subtle change to her stroke. Where she used to use a push method, she’s now focused more on opening, squaring, and closing the blade.
That’s taking Ko some time to master. She was No. 1 in putting on tour last year, No. 2 the year before. She’s No. 41 so far this year, thanks to some struggles on poa annua grass at last week’s Kia Classic, which caused trouble for a lot of players.
“She’s trying to feel comfortable over it and keep the face pretty square through the path,” Gilchrist said. “That’s all.’
Ko is also back to a Odyssey two-ball putter.
Gilchrist says Ko’s game is progressing just fine through this transition.
“I don’t have any concerns,” Gilchrist said of Ko’s overall game. “She has one of the greatest minds and greatest attitudes in the game. She’s a breath of fresh air.”
Ko arrives to defend her title remembering the strategy that worked so well for her last year.
“The biggest thing I remember about the whole day last year [in the final round] was that I really wasn’t focusing on what anybody else was doing,” Ko said. “I was just trying to play the best I can.”
It’s a strategy that she applies to her overall game and all the sweeping changes she’s working through.