Every year the standard of professional golf gets higher. Smarter training. Improved analytics. Increased competition. Golfers are getting the ball in the hole more efficiently now than at any point in history.
All of which led to an intriguing question lobbed in Lydia Ko’s direction on Friday: Are you better now than when you were World No. 1?
“I hope so,” Ko said, laughing. “I hope so because it’s seven years since then.”
Okay, it hasn’t been quite that long since she was on top of the world, but it has been a while: The last time Ko was the top-ranked player in the world was in the spring of 2017. Ko is used to being constantly compared to her former self; it’s inevitable given the standard of play she set as a teenager. As it turns out, those comparisons come from inside her own family, too.
“My mom does joke to me at times. She’s, like, ‘You played so much better when you were, like, 15.'” Ko said. “I was, like, ‘Thanks, Mom. Okay, what am I meant to do with that information?'”
But Ko, who’s now 25, took the question seriously, too. Is she better now than she was then? There’s no question she’s playing the best golf she has in years; Ko had slipped outside the top 50 in the world in 2020 and has now improved all the way to No. 3. She’s on a ridiculous run of consistency, racking up eight top-five finishes in her last 10 LPGA starts. She won her most recent start at the BMW Ladies Championship. And she carries a lead heading to the final stretch at the CME Group Tour Championship, where she opened 65-66 to lap the field.
“I don’t know about better,” she said. “I do know that I am more experienced now. Me playing as an amateur on the LPGA, I wanted to make the cut, and it was such a cool experience to play alongside these ladies that I had watched on TV, or I would open GOLF Magazine, and they were right there. It was a very different perspective. I played less than a full schedule, so it’s just different. I do feel a little bit experienced. Wiser? I don’t know about that either, but I am playing differently.”
Ko hits it a little farther now than then, she said. She’s also developed a more creative short game. That has been a benefit of experience.
“When I first came over to Florida from New Zealand, I had never heard of Bermuda before,” she said. “I came and I was flubbing pretty much every chipshot. I was, like, what grass is this? It was like a foreign language.”
Like learning any language, Ko improved with practice. She worked on Bermuda and Paspalum and rye and bent “and so many different grasses I can’t even name.” She learned new shots for new circumstances. Experience doesn’t always mean improvement. But Ko thinks it has its perks.
“I think that’s why some players have played on tour for, like, 10, 20 years. They hit some shots and they’re just — that experience is kind of like the 15th club. I think that’s what happens naturally over time.”
Ko is young by any standard besides experience, but evidence of that tenure is everywhere. One area? Leadership. Ko is a player director on the LPGA, which means she got a sneak peek at the LPGA schedule announced on Friday, which included a record total purse over $100 million.
“I feel like the LPGA Tour is making a stance on not just women’s golf but in women’s sports and how everybody should see female athletes,” she said.
Ko is used to being among the tour’s biggest names and is among its brains now, too.
There are still plenty of shots that she wants to learn. Ko usually only chips with two clubs, for instance, her 59-degree and 54-degree, and would love to chip with a 9-iron, just to have it in her repertoire.
“Or I saw some girls off the green that hit their hybrid up and over slopes,” she added. “I want to improve and have that so that when the circumstances come, I feel comfortable to have another shot and not just be one way.”
Golf is a game of constant change; Ko knows that as well as anyone. One recent shift: She recently split with swing coach Sean Foley after a successful run. So far, so good. She’ll head to Sunday at the CME looking to take down the biggest first-place prize in women’s golf: $2 million for the winner.
That would impress everyone. Even, we’re guessing, Ko’s mother.
“Yeah, I do hope I’m better,” Ko said by way of conclusion. “And I do hope my mom is joking when she says I played better when I was 15.”