Lydia Ko looks to dispel doubters after coaching upheaval with major comeback | Ewan Murray

Ewan Murray
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Lydia Ko has been the world No1 for 75 consecutive weeks.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Donald Miralle/Getty Images</span>
Lydia Ko has been the world No1 for 75 consecutive weeks. Photograph: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

If this is a crisis, it is the kind the vast majority of golfers would gleefully accept. Lydia Ko might be the defending champion at this week’s ANA Inspiration, the first major of 2017, but in the context of her stunning rise these are troubled times. Ko has not won since last July – her fourth victory of 2016 and a 14th on the LPGA Tour – and last weekend missed a cut (at the Kia Classic) for only the second time as a professional. Suddenly, the discussion around the double major champion has altered.

That Ko is still a teenager was commonly overlooked when she was in such dominant form. The routine inconsistency of youth is surely a key issue now but Ko’s career choices instead dictate her early season narrative and will until she enjoys success again. At the end of last year, she changed equipment company before dispensing with her coach and caddie. This is at the very least the first sign of upheaval in a hitherto fairytale career.

That tutor, the widely respected David Leadbetter, aimed a post-split broadside at Ko’s parents with the insistence that it had been “hard to coach three people”. Leadbetter added: “They tell her when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to practise and what to practise. And they expect her to win every tournament. They are good people who love their daughter and want the very best for her; Lydia has never been to college and is still young. But they are naive about golf. At some point, they’ve got to let the bird fly from the nest.”

As if to prove that storyline still lingers, Ko was asked about parental influence as she completed her ANA Inspiration media duties at Mission Hills in California. “My parents have been really supportive of me since I was an amateur,” said the 19-year-old. “My mum was on the bag. She pulled my little golf cart when I won the US Amateur in 2012 and she’s travelled with me all over the place. I remember her, not too long ago, when navigation systems weren’t a huge thing. She printed out pieces of A4 paper of how to get to certain places, from Los Angeles to San Diego. My dad has always been there with me to train and practise.

“They have been super supportive and I know that I couldn’t be here without them. I’m not the most organised person, so they help me to put everything in place and I think I’m here because of them.”

Ko could lose world No1 status by Sunday, with the 21-year-old Thai player Ariya Jutanugarn currently her closest rival for that position. Ko has led the rankings for 75 consecutive weeks. “There is a pressure because you’re the No1 ranked player; you should play awesome week-in and week-out,” Ko admitted. “I think the big thing is that it’s more about consistency and how many times you can put yourself in contention then sometimes being able to pull it off.

“I’ve been trying to not think about what ranked player I am when I’m out there. We’re all golfers trying to make as many birdies and eagles as we can, rather than thinking about: ‘I’m the No1 ranked player, she’s No2, she’s No90.’ We’re all golfers trying to play the best and hopefully be the one holding the trophy on Sunday.”

Ko’s struggles may be overstated. Before the Kia Classic, she had been on the hardly disastrous run of three top-10 finishes in a row. “I’m not coming in with fantastic momentum, not being able to play in the weekend last week,” she added. “But every day is a new day and every week is a new week. I’m just going to try and enjoy it out there and have a lot of fun.

“Being the defending champion, there is a little bit of pressure but then at the same time, it gives me the confidence to say that I can play well at this course. Especially because I had not had the greatest results prior to winning the ANA Inspiration.”

Ko is one of nine former champions in the field, with the New Zealander seeking to emulate Annika Sorenstam, the only player to successfully defend the ANA Inspiration.

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