Lydia Ko still the same joyful Kiwi, just with more on her mind these days

USGA

Lydia Ko still the same joyful Kiwi, just with more on her mind these days

LPGA Tour

Lydia Ko still the same joyful Kiwi, just with more on her mind these days

BEDMINSTER, N.J. – We can analyze the numbers all day. We can dissect a stroke or a swing. We can try to guess why Lydia Ko is 361 days removed from her last victory. But it’s the intangibles, the inner-workings of a player’s mind that mostly remain a mystery.

Here’s a simple fact that’s easy to forget: Ko is growing up before our eyes.

She’s 20 now, and older sister Sura believes that graduation from her teenage years brought curves to what had been a straight line to success.

“She thinks that since she has passed her 20th birthday, that means a lot of commitment to be a more adult person,” said Sura. “That’s why she’s thinking too much.”

Her winning game was simple, Sura said. Think simple, play simple, and the trophy will be waiting.

Sura, who is not only big sister but also Ko’s manager, walked outside the ropes on a sticky day in Somerset County. Little sis got off to a hot start at the 72nd U.S. Women’s Open, despite a bogey on her last hole. Ko’s 4-under 68 at Trump National Golf Club marks the first time she has broken 70 in the opening round of this championship. She’s two strokes back of leader Shanshan Feng.

“The greens are firm and fast like they normally are at the U.S. Women’s Open, so I was trying to just be positive and just be patient,” said Ko. “I think those two words are really important for me.”

Ko hasn’t had to wait for much in her 20 years. She raced to her first professional title at age 14; became the youngest player to win a major championship at age 18; rose to No. 1 in the world in her second full season on the LPGA.

“When she was 14, she had no idea where she was at, right?” asked Sura. “Now her ears are open. She hears a lot of things seriously.”

Ko made sweeping changes at the end of 2016 – new coach, caddie and equipment – and the adjustment period is ongoing. New coach Gary Gilchrist said it’s natural for a player to listen to more outside influences when things aren’t going to plan.

“When you’re playing great golf, people are learning from you, they’re not giving you advice,” he said. “As soon as you start to struggle in anything in life, people always want to know why. Now you start thinking why. There could be a million whys. You have to basically go back to what made you good.”

To that end, Gilchrist supports a childlike approach to the game. That was easy, of course, when Ko was winning professional tournaments around the world before most junior golfers take a high school match.

Ko has always had a mature mindset, a rare ability to forget bad shots and play with seemingly no fear. Sura said Ko is the same joyful Kiwi, she’s just got more on her mind these days.

“Normally at 25 or 26, a person starts to realize what’s in front of you, but she’s going through it now,” Sura said.

Ahead of her time, per usual.

Lydia Ko lining up her putt on the seventh hole during the first round of the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (USGA/Chris Keane)

Early week at Trump National, Ko toiled at length on the practice green with Gareth Raflewski, her putting coach since mid-June. Ko’s first day with Raflewski happened to be the day another one of his clients, Ariya Jutanugarn, won on the LPGA and dethroned Ko as World No. 1.

Sura said losing the top ranking wasn’t particularly devastating to Ko. Her main concern right now is making more putts.

On Tuesday, Ko rotated through three PXG putters, trying to find a more offset neck that suited her. Raflewski said there’s a smoother transition now to her stroke. They’ve tightened up her routine so that she’s not thinking as much.

On Wednesday, Raflewski said Ko barely missed anything.

“If she plays anything like that,” he said, “you’re going to see her becoming very dangerous.”

The next day Ko holed a number of par saves and poured in six birdies. She was pleased with how well she trusted her stroke. Speed control has been a point of emphasis with Raflewski.

“The best players learn faster than everybody else,” he said. “That’s often the difference.”

Ko knows she already has experienced the kind of success most can only dream about. That’s why she brings an attitude of gratefulness rather than worry to her work. She also knows that it’s easy to start thinking ahead to what she might do in five or 10 years.

Ko loves watching home makeover shows on HGTV. She’s especially fond of the “Property Brothers” and played in the pro-am with Drew Scott at the recent KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Ko’s now talking about going into interior design after she leaves the LPGA, Sura said. She has even considered buying an old house with her prize money.

For now though, the focus is on small goals. There’s a checklist in place that will eventually give way to dreaming about the big picture once again.

Gilchrist tells his clients that the key is to become more consistent. Consistency builds confidence, and confidence builds courage. Courage allows you to win.

“Everything is won or lost in the head,” he said.

That’s where Ko has always been special.

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