DALY CITY, Calif. – As unflappable as Lydia Ko appears, she isn’t fearless.
In fact, she could show you a list of her 10 biggest fears, because she has been delving into them, plucking them out into the light of day, shaking them around and analyzing them. She’s even writing about them.
Lest you think she’s become too meticulous preparing for championship golf, know that she’s just doing her homework. Ko has officially started her freshman year at Korea University. As one of her first assignments in a psychology course, she was asked to identify her 10 biggest fears and detail how she is addressing those fears.
In the shadow of the Lake Merced clubhouse at this week’s Swinging Skirts Classic, Ko chuckles when asked if she cares to share a fear or two that she is writing about. She has, by the way, one of the most engaging chuckles on tour, a laugh that makes you feel like you grew up next door to her.
“I’ll give you a funky one,” she says. “I’m scared of the dark.”
“Yes, it’s a big story in our family,” Ko says. “We had a two-story house in New Zealand, and our kitchen was upstairs. So, I was walking upstairs in the dark, and my dad had hung a white shirt on the door. For a second, I thought it was a ghost.”
Ko smiles remembering it, remembering how her family loves telling the story, too. She is asked just how young she was when this “event” made such a formidable impression. Maybe 5, 6 years old?
“No,” she says. “It wasn’t that long ago, actually. I think I’ve gotten even more scared of the dark since then.”
Ko is laughing at herself again. She says she is “really weird,” because she loves to watch the TV show “Criminal Minds,” even though it “creeps” her out. Of course, she isn’t weird, and the fact that she likes to watch scary shows reminds you that she really is a teenager, that she really is just 17 years old, for a couples days more, at least.
Though Ko isn’t legally an adult until Friday, when she celebrates her 18th birthday, she remains a marvel of precociousness. It isn’t just her game. It’s all she’s juggling inside and outside the ropes with such gracefulness.
Ko will tee it up Thursday at the Swinging Skirts Classic as the Rolex World No. 1 for the 11th consecutive week. She’s the defending champion here this week, seeking her 11th worldwide title, her third this year. And, oh yeah, she’s now officially going to college, a psychology major making her start with three classes this semester. She also is enrolled in an English course and is taking German as another language.
Psychology, though, is her real academic interest. That’s what got her thinking that maybe she’ll retire when she’s 30 and start a new career. When she enrolled, she told her agent, Michael Yim, that she was already thinking she would like to get a doctorate in the field.
“Obviously, education is important to her,” Yim said.
Ko sees that studying psychology isn’t just an investment in her future. There could be dividends long before she graduates. Doing her assignment, analyzing her fears, she rolled some golf into it. She even talked to her sports psychologist, Jim Loehr, about it.
“It was a really cool assignment, because it was something I could relate to,” Ko said. “I did some about my golf. I’ve been spending some time with Dr. Loehr, so I’ve been kind of mixing our sessions with my assignment.”
Some of Ko’s schooling is online, some straight from emailed assignments from professors. She worked out a special program to allow her to continue to compete while studying. So Yeon Ryu did the same thing at Yonsei University, earning a degree in sports business while she played professionally. Michelle Wie attended Stanford and continued to play on tour.
“There are a lot of assignments,” Ko said. “It isn’t easy.
“My professors send pages of data, sometimes 50 pages, and I’ve got to read them and write reports on them. I just had an assignment where I had to read two chapters of a book. They were 100 pages each, and I had to write reports.”
Ko works in her homework between fighting off Rolex No. 2 Inbee Park, No. 3 Stacy Lewis and a contingent of ambitious LPGA pros that includes the best rookie class to ever hit the LPGA.
There’s serious work on the range required to stay ahead of this era’s best. Last week, Ko met with swing coach David Leadbetter for a full day at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla. They worked for six hours fixing little problems that emerged in her last start, the ANA Inspiration two weeks ago.
Knowing she was the favorite to win the ANA, that she could make history becoming the youngest winner of a major championship, Ko struggled. She tied for 51st. It was her worst finish of the year, her worst finish in her 13 major championship starts.
Given her continued run of excellence, an off week was bound to come, but she’s world No. 1, and her game gets extra scrutiny. She came to the ANA having already won twice this year, having not failed to finish among the top 10 in 10 consecutive LPGA starts. The first-round 71 she put up at Mission Hills was her 29th consecutive round under par, equaling Annika Sorenstam’s modern record.
Ko, though, didn’t break par for the rest of the week. She was uncharacteristically errant off the tee. She hit just three of 14 fairways on Sunday, just six on Friday. She played too much from the rough to be a factor.
Though Ko didn’t blame fatigue, didn’t complain about playing her fifth event in six weeks with international travel in between, Leadbetter saw her tiring.
“The major came at the end of a long stretch,” Leadbetter said. “It came at the wrong time.
“I think that’s one of the things you learn as a player, to peak at the right time. I think she peaked too early.”
Ko is a range warrior. She loves to hit balls. It’s something Leadbetter has tried to temper, encouraging her to take her rest and enjoy it.
“There’s no question in my mind, she was really fatigued at ANA,” Leadbetter said. “I could tell the first part of the week. It wasn’t anything you could put your finger on. She was just a little off, her strategy was off. She made some mental errors. In the end, you don’t like making excuses, but you look at the stretch of tournaments she went through, the travel, what have you, it’s a lot of golf.”
And most all of it playing while in contention on weekends, when the pressure is greatest.
Leadbetter said he would like to see Ko make a change in her major championship preparation. He would like to see her take the week off before a major, or at least not play so much leading into one.
Ko did rest after the ANA Inspiration. Following a corporate outing the day after the championship, she stayed in Palm Springs with her mother, Tina. They went shopping. The next day, they drove to Los Angeles, where Ko spent the day with her friend, Danielle Kang. Upon returning home to Orlando, Ko said she slept all day. She spent the next day at hair salon and an Orlando Magic game before getting back to work with Leadbetter on the business of golf.
“Lydia really loves to work at it,” Leadbetter said. “She has an amazing work ethic, but I have to hand it to her, she actually paced herself pretty well last week. She didn’t kill herself. We tidied up a few things, and I would say she’s pretty much back on track, and I’m expecting her to play well.”