8 May 2019

Opinion: Ko critics need a reality check

4:10 pm on 8 May 2019

Opinion - Lydia Ko's place in golf and New Zealand sports history is assured.

Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko Photo: Facebook

World No.1 at 17 and a major championship winner at 18, no golfer has ever been younger. If the now 22-year-old were to never pick a club up again, she'd surely be remembered as New Zealand's most successful player.

Sir Bob Charles is a major winner and a fine player on professional circuits until well into his sixties, while Michael Campbell's US Open and World Matchplay titles put him in the discussion as well. But to be world No.1 and something of a marvel, as Ko was, takes some beating.

As good as Charles and Campbell have been, and how well they flew the flag for New Zealand, Ko is a player of historic significance to the world game.

We like to think anything's possible for our children. That even from this far flung corner of the globe, people from this little place can grow up to do massive things on a big stage.

Lydia Ko didn't just dream it. Along with her parents, she did it, and everyone enjoyed and admired their achievement.

Golf might be an individual sport, but it's not played in isolation. For a young person to play tournaments at even a modest amateur level requires plenty of support.

Sir Bob Charles.

Sir Bob Charles was a pioneer of golf in New Zealand, but Hamish Bidwell believes Lydia Ko will go down as greater than the left hander. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Ko was competing at national events in New Zealand from the time she was seven. To even still want to play golf at 17 is something of an achievement, let alone to be world No.1.

So many 'prodigies' flame out. Pressure, failure, puberty are just the start of the things that can quickly turn love for a sport into hate.

In New Zealand sporting terms, cricketer Kane Williamson is a similar recent example to Ko. Plenty of players are prolific run-getters at age-group level, but very few have the hunger and talent to keep churning scores out as adults.

To his great credit, Williamson, now 28, looks as enthused and driven about batting as he did at intermediate school.

It's some feat and you hope Ko is still enjoying golf and still working just as hard when she gets to Williamson's age. Ko talked in a recent interview about the need to keep "grinding'' and you'd have to say golf does look a grind for her.

Never a long hitter, accuracy was always Ko's great strength. She hit a lot of greens in regulation and then made her putts.

Michael Campbell at the 100th New Zealand Open, The Hills, Arrowtown, New Zealand.

Michael Campbell was New Zealand's second major winner, followed by Ko. Photo: Photosport

But, even in her time, the women's game has changed. The emphasis on length has mirrored that in men's golf and female players are training and hitting accordingly.

Ko's caddies always came and went but, in a quest for distance, equipment and coaches have regularly changed too.

Once an almost flawless player, Ko is now prone to errors and has just one LPGA title to her name in the last three years.

She's not the first golfer this has happened to. It's no so long, for instance, since Zimbabwe's Nick Price was the No.1 men's player in the world.

A beautiful player, Price wasn't a prodigious hitter. But his control of irons and ability to shape the ball helped him win three major titles.

It's just that, after winning the Open Championship and US PGA in 1994, Price entered an era where courses began to get 'Tiger-proofed'. Tiger Woods hit the ball so far that everyone set about pulling tee boxes back and elongating courses.

It didn't work. Woods and his ilk just hit the ball further, making eagle on Par 5s that a player such as Price had to settle for par on.

Price hardly won again, but that doesn't diminish his standing or the quality of golf he played in his pomp. It just means that golf became a different game during his career.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - JANUARY 19: Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees off on hole 16 during the third round of the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions on January 19, 2019, at Tranquilo Golf Course at Fours Seasons Orlando in Lake Buena Vista, FL. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Ko's success on the LPGA Tour in the last three years has been limited to just one win after swing, coach and caddie changes. Photo: ©Icon Sportswire

As it has for Ko. There's no disgrace in what she's doing now. As Ko says, she's grinding, she's working hard, she's hanging in there. Once upon a time that would have seen her atop the LPGA money list, this year she sits 28th.

We fuss too much about Ko. She has had an absolutely amazing career, been an outstanding ambassador for New Zealand and provided inspiration to golfers everywhere.

Where she lives, what she wears, how she looks or whether she finishes in the top-10 every week really isn't that important. If her best, most productive years are behind her, then so what?

Few golfers have ever achieved as much as Ko and none so young. Let's be grateful we were around to see it.

More importantly, let's give Ko the room to live her life. To make mistakes, to miss cuts and to change coaches or caddies without our judgement.

If she hasn't earned that right, then no New Zealand golfer has.

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