RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — When she arrived at Mission Hills last spring, Lydia Ko was searching.
She was searching for a win. Ko hadn’t lifted a trophy in three years — a shocking drought following her incredible run as teenage World No. 1.
She was also searching for a major championship title. If Ko’s three-year winless spell was shocking, the five years she’d gone without a major title was damn near inconceivable.
And she was searching for a simple, effective golf swing. Ko, a self-proclaimed over-thinker, had a tendency to complicate the golf swing, which had been hampering her progress for years.
But she was close to finding it.
After teaming up with renowned instructor (and GOLF Top 100 Teacher) Sean Foley in the summer of 2020, her game had been trending in the right direction. Heading into major championship season, Ko put together her best stretch of golf in years — seven top 10s in 14 starts — and her world ranking was steadily on the rise.
The two proved to be a formidable team. Ko loves to rely on thinking and feeling her swing, and there’s not a coach in golf more cerebral than Foley.
“There were a lot of questions in my head, and I needed a bit more clarity,” Ko told GOLF.com at the Chevron Championship. “That’s what he’s helped me with the most. Defining what is right and what is wrong is more important than technically knowing what needs to happen.”
The term “swing coach” is too limiting for Foley. That’s not to disparage his fundamentals; he has a terrific understanding of the technical intricacies of the golf swing. But his teachings only begin with golf. Talk to Foley for five minutes and you’ll learn about life.
“A great coach is a friend and a mentor,” Foley told GOLF.com. “It’s not all just technical.”
He’s exactly the type of coach Ko needs. The now-24-year-old was a teenage sensation when she began her professional career. She won in bunches, became the top-ranked golfer at age 17 and was compared to the game’s all-time greats. The game looked easy.
But all of a sudden, golf wasn’t easy. The wins became more infrequent, and then they stopped altogether. She started missing cuts. She fired her swing coach. She fired her caddie. Her world ranking dropped. What once looked so easy became decidedly difficult.
“My M.O. has always been players who are at the bottom of their game,” Foley said in an episode of Off Course with Claude Harmon. “The first time they’ve ever found the game to be super, super difficult.”
Ko certainly fit the profile. She was two years removed from her most recent win when she teamed up with Foley, and she’d dropped outside the top 50 in the world.
They got to work.
From a technical standpoint, Ko’s swing wasn’t in terrible shape, but there was room for fine-tuning. Her alignment had drifted to the right at address, causing compensations in her swing that needed to be addressed. Additionally, they worked on getting the feel at the top of her swing in a comfortable place.
There was also a mental component to the work.
“He’s more than just a swing coach,” Ko said. “Sometimes I talk about life things with him. He’s worked with and met so many people, so his perspective is different. It’s nice to talk to him about golf things and non-golf things. There is no b.s. He’s very straightforward and gives grounded advice.”
The mental aspect of the golf is perhaps the area Ko has improved the most. The scar tissue from her lost years is still present, but it doesn’t define her.
“Philosophically, she’s improved a great deal,” Foley said.
So, even though Ko was searching when she arrived at Mission Hills last season, she wasn’t lost.
Ko was largely an afterthought heading into the final round at the 2021 ANA Inspiration. A solid week left her eight strokes behind 54-hole leader Patty Tavatanakit. Then, everything clicked.
Ko lit the course on fire. She made an eagle, eight birdies and zero bogeys. Her 10-under 62 was the lowest final-round in major championship history. And although it wasn’t quite enough to catch Tavatanakit, the word was out — Lydia Ko was back.
The next week, she validated that final round with her first win in three years. She’s won twice more in the time since and risen to No. 3 in the World Golf Ranking.
She’s not done searching — every golfer is a work in progress — but Ko returns to Mission Hills this week with plenty of confidence.
“To see herself build herself back up is really dope,” Foley said. “She’s worked for everything she’s earned.”