Lydia Ko’s struggles this summer have moved beyond trying to win for the first time in more than a year.
Her battle of late is more against the cut line than contenders.
Even Ko, the determined optimist, is perplexed by this.
Ko tees it up at the Indy Women in Tech Championship this week conceding her confidence is challenged in the first prolonged swoon of her remarkable career.
“I think it would be a lie to say I’ve been positive all the way through,” Ko said Wednesday. “There have been times when I have said, ‘Man, I don’t know why I have not been playing as well.’ It’s a big learning curve, where it’s not always going to be a high. Fortunately, for me, the last few years I’ve had so many highs. It’s been going in that direction where I’ve not really stumbled on a rock.”
Ko was the most accomplished teen phenom the women’s game had ever seen, but things haven’t come as easily to her since she turned 20 in April. Actually, her slip in form began even before that, with some struggles beginning late last year.
Ko, who won 14 LPGA titles as a teenager, made sweeping changes before coming into this season, beginning the year with a new caddie, new equipment and a new coach.
The transition has been tougher than she expected.
Ko arrived in Indianapolis this week off a missed cut at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, an event she won as a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old. It was her second missed cut in three starts, a stretch that was close to being three straight MCs. She made the cut on the number at the Ricoh Women’s British Open before heading to Canada.
Ko has seven top-10 finishes this year, but none since the start of summer, none over her last seven starts.
After missing just one cut in her first 94 LPGA starts, Ko has now missed three in her last 14 starts.
“I just haven’t been able to put all the pieces together,” Ko said. “In Canada, I hit the ball really well the first day and struggled with the putter. On the second day, I wasn’t hitting it good. That’s why it’s hard to put it all together, when not everything is there.
“It’s about balance, and more a confidence thing.”
Ko’s struggles have raised questions about whether she left something behind making so many changes in her push to improve when she already ruled atop the women’s game.
For 85 consecutive weeks, Ko reigned as Rolex world No. 1, before losing that top spot in June. Her rankings slide continued this week with a move down to No. 8.
Gary Gilchrist, Ko’s swing coach, believes Ko’s challenge is about comfort and confidence. When a player isn’t comfortable, confidence is affected.
While working through all these changes this year, Ko seems to have become more analytical than is her nature.
“Lydia has never been analytical about any part of her game,” Gilchrist said. “She is probably the most natural player, who just used her feel, and went out and played with it. I think the biggest thing for her is to go out again and just play, without too much thinking.”
Gilchrist has a reputation for getting players comfortable by keeping things simple, but Karen Stupples, the Golf Channel analyst and 2004 Women’s British Open champion, believes that hasn’t been easy amid all the changes. She sees Ko struggling to get comfortable through all the transitions this year.
“It takes time to adjust to all those changes,” Stupples said. “In the process of adjusting, she’s lost some confidence.”
Before the 2014 season, Ko’s parents moved her away from the longtime coach of her New Zealand youth, Guy Wilson. They steered her to David Leadbetter, asking that he turn her fade into a draw. Leadbetter did that, and Ko ascended to Rolex world No. 1 under him. They won 14 times around the world together.
Ko’s swing eventually evolved into Leadbetter’s A-Swing, but Lydia’s father, Gil Hong, began moving her away from that movement late last year, even while Lydia was still supposed to be working with Leadbetter. The Kos eventually split with Leadbetter at the end of last season, with Lydia going to work with Gilchrist, who subtly moved Ko back to a more one-plane swing, keeping her draw as her primary ball flight.
While making swing changes with Gilchrist at year’s start, Ko signed a new equipment deal with PXG, transitioning to all its clubs.
“Lydia hasn’t known anything but success in her short career,” Stupples said. “So for her to take on all these dramatic changes, it probably didn’t seem too daunting to her, at the start, because everything has always come so easy for her. She probably thought, ‘I can handle it. It’s no big deal,’ not realizing how much she was actually taking on.”
Stupples says regardless how good new equipment can be, there is a challenge dialing in changes.
“Getting used to new clubs, being fitted, trying new drivers, new irons, that takes away time from the short game,” Stupples said. “You have to take time hitting more full shots, because you’re trying to get used to new clubs and the swing changes. The short game starts to suffer.”
Stupples said wedge play can be the most difficult transition to new clubs, because there’s so much more feel involved. She sees a drop off in Ko’s short game as a real factor in her slip in form.
Ko ranks 23rd on tour in scoring average at 70.24. She was second in scoring last year (69.60) and second the year before that (69.44).
“Lydia’s struggling to score like she used to,” Gilchrist said. “For me, when you want to score better, you start putting more pressure on your putting.”
Ko is sixth on tour in putts per greens in regulation this year, but she has slipped to 18th in putting average. She was first in both putting categories last year.
Maybe the most overlooked change Ko has made was to her putting this season. Before this year, she putted with a conventional grip for longer putts, then moved to left-hand low for shorter putts. She abandoned left-hand low under Gilchrist, and she also changed the path of her stroke, moving away from the push stroke she grew up with.
This summer, Ko made more changes, bringing in a new putting coach, Gareth Raflewski, who also works with Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. And she moved back to left-hand low in her last start, at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open.
“It’s not the same left-hand low I used to have,” Ko told GolfChannel.com. “I’m trying to find the most comfortable grip that will produce the best putts.”
Gilchrist said comfort is a large factor in Ko holing more putts.
“Lydia’s putting stroke is actually better now, technically, than it has been in the past,” Gilchrist said. “She’s done amazing work on it, but it’s funny how things work. When you are comfortable and confident, you might not have the best stroke, but the ball is goes in. And while you can be more technically sound, if you aren’t comfortable and confident, it doesn’t go in.”
Ko’s driving stats have actually improved over last year. Her iron play isn’t as sharp as it was two years ago. She ranked second in greens in regulation on tour in 2015, slipped to 31st last year and is 47th this year.
“Her iron play hasn’t been up to her standard,” Gilchrist acknowledged.
But, Gilchrist said, ball striking was never what set Ko apart.
“I’ve always said, she’s a genius, that her mind is her real strength, as a player,” Gilchrist said. “Her strength never had to be ball striking.”
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin wasn’t surprised Ko would encounter challenges this year, but she believes Ko will work through them.
“Watching the No. 1 player in the world go through such massive changes was very interesting to me,” said Rankin, a Golf Channel analyst. “To be where she was in the world, and change everything, whether you are aware of it or not, has to be a bit of a confidence shaker.
“If you come out the first two or three weeks of the season and set the world on fire, it goes unnoticed, but when you don’t, there’s that little bit of doubt that hadn’t been there before, and now it seems to be there consistently, and it grows.”
World No. 1 So Yeon Ryu needed almost a full year to get comfortable with the overhaul she made after going to Cameron McCormick as her coach before the 2016 season. Those changes are paying off big this year.
“Lydia is so dedicated,” Gilchrist said. “She puts in all the time and work, and she has a great support system in her parents and her sister, Sura. I think it’s just a matter of being more patient, and letting it happen, instead of trying to make it happen. It’s trusting and believing in what you’re doing, and sticking with it, until you’re comfortable and it feels good.”