PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Lydia Ko will start the new season with a new coach, a new caddie and a new set of golf clubs.
She’s also getting closer to setting up an American base in Orlando, Fla., to play the tour’s domestic events.
With an offseason filled with more drama than she expected, Ko knows what consternation all of this will cause.
Is she making too many changes?
Will she have the same chemistry going with so many new pieces around her game?
Will she need time to acclimate to her new ensemble before she wins again?
Ko understands those are the questions that will be asked when she tees it up at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic Thursday in her first event as a rookie member of the LPGA. She is only 16, but she’s quickly learning that every little change in her game comes with intensifying scrutiny. With Ko at No. 4 in the Rolex world rankings, the level of interest in her is swelling, especially back in New Zealand, where she’s something of a national treasure having already won five pro events.
“A lot of people are saying, `You’re making big changes. After turning pro, you’re doing this, this and this different,’” Ko said Wednesday after her pro-am round in the Bahamas. “Yes, but I love a challenge.”
When Ko confirmed she was switching coaches last month, it created a giant stir back in New Zealand among Kiwis who didn’t like the fact that she was leaving Guy Wilson, the New Zealand Institute of Golf coach who taught her to play. Steve Williams, the Kiwi caddie who knows something about emotional splits and is a friend to Wilson, said he was “shocked” and could not “fathom” why she would leave him.
The backlash back home surprised Ko, and those in the know will tell you it hurt her.
“I was so surprised,” Ko said. “I didn’t know it would be a story, but it was big news in New Zealand.”
Ko is being coached now by David Leadbetter and Sean Hogan, who is on Leadbetter’s staff. She said she believes it’s best for her game to have a coach near where she will make her American base. She doesn’t like being coached at an event and prefers to do her work between events.
The backlash was instructive, alerting her to the realities of her growing fame.
“A lot of people have advised me, telling me this is what’s going to happen, that it’s not always going to be good, there will be some negative as well,” Ko said. “I’ve talked to players, and they’ve supported me. I had to do what’s best for my situation.”
Ko continues to impress LPGA officials and fellow players with her poise. The fact is, the Ko family has never rushed a decision relating to her career. The Kos took their time carefully considering Lydia’s transition to the professional game. While decisions about endorsements (ANZ), equipment contracts (Callaway) and coaching seemed to come in rapid-fire releases, they were long in the making.
And make no mistake, Lydia has a strong voice in all of these decisions.
Count Rolex world No. 3 Stacy Lewis among those believing Ko knows exactly what she’s doing.
“Really, I think the sky’s the limit for her,” Lewis said. “There’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment, playing week in and week out on our tour, but once she figures that out, I think she’ll probably be the No. 1 player sometime in the future.
“She has a great demeanor about her. You would never know she’s as successful as she is at a young age. She just seems to handle it all really well. It’s refreshing. She’s very humble.”
Lewis and Ko will be paired together in the first two rounds of the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic. Lewis played alongside Ko in the final round of the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open. Though Lewis was on her way to winning Rolex Player of the Year that season, Ko wasn’t fazed, holding off Lewis to become the youngest winner of an LPGA event at 15.
“There’s nothing really with her game that blows you away,” Lewis said. “You look at Inbee [Park] with her putting, or Lexi [Thompson] with her distance, they blow you away a little bit. Lydia just seems to get the ball in the hole quicker than anybody else. That’s the best thing I can say about her. She’ll just be going along, going along, and before you know it, she’s 5 or 6 under.”
Ko’s new caddie is Scott Lubin, who once caddied for Jack Nicklaus.
“Everything’s different,” Ko said.
Ko would like nothing better than to show with a continued run of success that the more things change, the more they stay the same.