When Lydia Ko parted ways with her long-time swing coach in New Zealand after turning pro late last year, there were Kiwis who were outraged.
Some are kicking up a fuss again after learning this past week that Ko may still be receiving taxpayer-funded financial support from New Zealand Golf while playing as a professional. NZG is the governing body for golf in that country.
At 16, Ko is winning friends in the LPGA ranks even more easily than she’s winning tournaments with her sweet disposition, but she’s also becoming a polarizing figure back in the country where she grew up.
News stories and editorials coming out of New Zealand now are thrusting her in the middle of a public squabble over whether professional athletes should receive government assistance in their quest to win Olympic medals and world championship trophies.
Fairfax Media of New Zealand reported last week that Ko received $115,000 from New Zealand Golf as an amateur in 2012 and $185,000 while an amateur in 2013. The news organization also reported that she then applied for $208,000 in financial support for 2014 after turning pro late last year.
New Zealand Golf’s funding for Ko comes from High Performance Sport New Zealand. That’s a program that “invests in the country’s elite athletes and coaches on behalf of the government so we can produce more winners on the world stage,” according to HPSNZ’s website.
After a backlash followed news reports about New Zealand Golf's plans for continued funding of Ko’s career, NZG leaped to her defense. NZG explained in a report on its website that Ko’s family did not apply for funding after she turned pro.
“NZG did this on her behalf,” the New Zealand Golf report stated. “The following attack on the young golfer’s credibility in the media and on social media has been unfounded and unfair.”
New Zealand Golf officials explain in the report they made the application for Ko while she was still an amateur, but she is still eligible for support as a professional.
Alex Baumann, the chief executive officer for High Performance Sport New Zealand, says Ko got the government-funded support because she has the potential to win an Olympic gold medal for New Zealand in the 2016 Olympics, and that she is still eligible for support. HPSNZ funds other professional pursuing the Olympics. However, his organization is reviewing New Zealand Golf’s funding application now that she’s earning money as a pro.
“As we have said publicly before, it’s likely that Lydia’s earnings as a professional will mean that she no longer needs our financial support, and we’re continuing to talk to New Zealand Golf about that,” Baumann said in the NZG report. “There may be other support we can provide to Lydia such as help from our specialist staff to assist her through to the Olympics. Our level of support will depend on what Lydia’s needs are.”
IMG’s Jay Burton, one of Ko’s agents, said the Kos welcomed New Zealand Golf’s explanation of how the funding program is designed and executed.
“The family is pleased New Zealand Golf provided clarity to the matter,” Burton said.
Still, Ko remains in the middle of the debate.
An editorial from the Fairfax Media put the debate to its readers this way:
“Shouldn't the sports funding system be run on similar lines to the original intent of the New Zealand welfare state? Shouldn't it be a hand up, not a handout?
“Give athletes an opportunity to get to the top, but once they're standing on their own two feet and earning big salaries, prize money payouts and sponsorship deals, divert the dough to someone who really needs it.
“Lydia Ko clearly doesn't.
“But it would be unfair to scapegoat the 16-year-old golf phenomenon. She's not the only sportsperson doing quite nicely thank you very much from the HPSNZ funding system.”