What's really wrong with Lydia Ko? Not as much as you might think. Michael Donaldson reports.
Lydia Ko is often her own worst public relations enemy – and that's just the way she likes it – even if it means she ends up being a misunderstood multi-millionaire.
The 22-year-old golf star made a fleeting visit to New Zealand last week, anchored around Wednesday's Queen's Birthday honours investiture at Government House where she appeared alongside Dan Carter and Barbara Kendall to be honoured for services to sport.
There was business to attend to during her six days here, with New Zealand Golf and her sponsors.
But there was plenty time for fun.
Judging by her Instagram she's a virtual ambassador for chef Josh Emmett, dining at his restaurants – Ostro, in Auckland, and Rata, in Queenstown. She ate a lot of oysters. She played golf at Tara Iti and Jack's Point, two of the country's best courses. She laughed. She shared everything on Instagram stories – those little snippets of news that disappear after 24 hours.
Outside her own social media posts she kept a relatively low profile, doing an interview with Radio Sport's Matt Brown in which she offered nuggets of insight scattered between platitudes, and she spoke to media at her investiture where she revealed a little bit more about her current struggles.
It was just enough to keep the media happy yet not quite enough to fully answer all the questions. She maintains a protective bubble surrounded by a void just big enough for others to fill on her behalf.
That's why, as she left New Zealand, the talk was still about how she'd "sacked" her most recent coach, Ted Oh.
Yes, he was her third coach in three years (to go with three caddies in the same time) so when she split with Oh, there was a Ko template story waiting to be filled with obligatory acid-tongued nonsense from former coach David Leadbetter.
And here's where Ko's once over lightly approach doesn't serve her well. With no input from her or her team it was easy to run with the go-to Ko narrative in which she "sacks" people – perpetuating an image of a petulant princess who's never pleased.
The fact is no-one sacked anyone – the Ko-Oh relationship didn't work out because Florida-based Ko preferred Arizona-based Oh to spend more time on the road with her. It doesn't take much digging around to discover it was Oh – with two young kids at home – who couldn't commit.
When he said there was too much "stress" – it was the stress of trying to find the right balance between work and family and he opted for family.
Ko's relentless move-forward positivity and reticence to explain or elaborate mean that she struggled to own the story, therefore allowing it to be written on her behalf.
Ko has never been a great one for doing media interviews and public speaking – although she's getting better at it even if the content seems to brush the surface. But that's just the way Team Ko like it – do your talking on the course, keep the sponsors happy, bank the cheques and move on.
So lately, when things have been going relatively poorly – compared with the high standards she set in her first three years as a professional – it's very hard to get an answer to the question everyone's asking: a variation of "What's wrong with Lydia Ko?"
The short answer is there's nothing wrong with her – let's put that in writing. She's 22 and has earned US$10m in her six-year career. Plus, she's on a multi-year multi-million-dollar deal with clubmaker PXG and has other serious-coin sponsors – Lexus, ANZ, Ecco and ISPS Handa.
She doesn't want for anything.
Her Instagram is a bubble of fun, fine food and celebrity encounters laced with positive affirmation quotes, heart emojis and smiles.
Sure, she'd like to win more golf tournaments but there's nothing actually wrong with Lydia Ko – she seems like a well-adjusted wealthy young woman who struggles from time to time with self-belief and focus – like most of us.
But that's all we can glean from looking in the shop window where it's all big picture stuff.
And that's one of the problems for fans and media – there's not much meat, no nitty-gritty, because Ko rarely opens up about the internal machinations of her team and so we're left to make a lot guesses about her whirlwind of changes over the past three years and the associated slump in form – relative to the heights of her teen years.
In trying to work out where she is now, it helps to look back.
She took up with Leadbetter when she turned pro because the plan was to increase her power and distance. There's no denying the results achieved under Leadbetter, which begs the question why switch – at the end of 2016 – when she was so dominant?
Not only did Ko part ways with Leadbetter, she ditched everything associated with the Leadbetter academy – including her physical trainer and sports psychologist.
Prior to that she ditched caddie Jason Hamilton – largely thanks to the bad advice he gave her on the last hole of the 2016 US Open which cost her major title No 3.
She switched clubs from Callaway from PXG.
Why? What we know is that by the end of 2016 she was mentally and physically exhausted and at a low ebb. She could have – arguably should have – won three majors that year but triumphed in one.
She played too many tournaments, including the Rio Olympics. She was 19 and burned out and hadn't thrived under pressure as she'd done the previous three years.
The results weren't bad – far from it, they were sensational – but the effort required was unsustainable.
She wanted to change her Leadbetter-coached "A swing" because it wasn't natural. She didn't, in the parlance of golf, "own her own swing" and as a result there was too much thinking required to make it work.
As Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player turned controversial commentator, noted: "David Leadbetter completely changed the DNA of her golf swing. Why in the world would you do that? Because you want to put your stamp or signature on the masterpiece that is this kid?"
Her fitness regime, designed for power, didn't suit her – she'd worked hard on building her strength but didn't have any endurance, often fading late in tournaments, and definitely fading late in the season.
She'd lost trust in her caddie because of that bad call on the final hole of the US Open where he encouraged her to be aggressive from a bad lie rather than play to her strengths when she was leading by one shot.
Instead of baling out of trouble and relying on her potent wedge-putter game to get the result she went aggressive, dumped her second shot in the water and took a double bogey to finish third.
The changes she made were all about the search for a long-term solution, which includes winning three more majors for a career grand slam and making it into the LPGA Hall of Fame. Back then Ko carried a motivational quote from Young-Pyo Lee, a retired Korean footballer: "What you're practicing now, it's not for your next event. It's not for three weeks from now or for later in the season. What you're practicing now is going to be for five years from now."
Seen in that light, Ko's systemic overhaul was about her taking charge of something unsustainable in the hope she could create something that would last and feel true to who she was.
And Ko is adamant all the decisions were her own – that she's not being manipulated by mum and dad or her management team, which includes sister Sura. "I've made every decision … whether they were wrong or right who knows, but I have no regrets about the decisions I've made."
When she quit Leadbetter, Gary Gilchrist became the "rebound" coach charged with unpicking all the weird stuff Leadbetter had created. For her part, Ko said Gilchrist "ripped apart" her Leadbetter swing. That she quickly moved on, ditching new caddie Peter Godfrey at the same time, is neither here nor there in the big picture.
Gilchrist was a stepping stone, not the answer.
What she was looking for was a golf swing, in her own words, that would work under pressure. "Even if you have the most beautiful fundamentals if they don't work under pressure conditions it's not worth it," she said last week, adding the goal with Oh was to simplify the swing, reduce the "manipulation".
She says Oh has left her with a blueprint for a future in which she will, for now, coach herself.
But as many a mind coach has observed, swings don't crumble under pressure, people do.
And that gets to the real heart of what the past two years have been about – Ko hasn't just been rebuilding her swing, she's been transforming herself, mentally and physically.
The dramatic weight loss is an outward sign. Ko, by all accounts, has embraced healthy living and cardiovascular training designed to get her playing weight down and her fitness up.
The almost-but-not-quite nature of the 2016 season – despite all its successes – knocked her confidence, particularly the US Open mess.
She's spent the past two years looking for solutions and brick by brick she's laid the foundation. All that's left is the mental clarity to put it all into action.
She noted that Lululemon – the activewear clothing company – had helped her get into meditation and yoga as she seeks that place on the golf course where "you're not thinking about anything else that's going on".
She reiterated that at her investiture, saying: "Sometimes I know that I over-complicate it and over-think it." She added that where she'd left things with Oh "might be a good stage for me to clear my mind and simplify things".
This is the modern trend of golf psychology – it's not about swing thoughts or visualisation or positive thoughts – it's about understanding that playing with an uncluttered mind is key.
One of the leading mental performance consultants in America, Garret Kramer, summed it up this way: "Just be you … anything that obstructs your inner wisdom and instincts, throw it out."
And that's what Ko has been doing these past two years.
A swing, such as the one she was working on under Leadbetter, required a lot of conscious thought – it wasn't innate – so she threw it out.
Her US Open error on Hamilton's advice went against her instincts – so she moved on (and here it's worth noting that current caddie Johnny Scott has been safely employed for 18 months).
Those around Ko believe she's close to having the foundation of her next 10 years in place – and yes, while she originally said she'd quit at 30, Ko is reportedly keen to play on until at least the 2028 Olympics, if not 2032.
In the long run these past two years might yet appear as a minor ebb in the overall flow of Ko's career.
One of Kramer's catchphrases about battling mental demons is to "stay in the game" – to work through emotions, anxiety, self-criticism, fear, form-slumps by continually turning up.
And it's for that reason Ko's former mental skills coach in New Zealand, David Neithe, is convinced she will find her way back to form.
"Form comes in cycle – you go through periods of great performance and then through waves when you struggle a little bit. Every athlete goes through it, every athlete – and Lydia is going through a wave at the moment. And that can contaminate self-belief.
"When you're going through a tough patch you start looking for solutions to the challenges – but what you're really looking for is results because that's what builds that belief again.
"If there's a reason she's going to find those solutions it's because of her character – she has an incredible attitude. She's still out there smiling and still out there grinding. If she starts rolling a few putts in that will trigger the self-belief that creates that tidal wave of performance."
*Michael Donaldson is an award-winning journalist and author of 'Lydia Ko: Portrait of a teen golfing sensation'.