Lydia Ko comes to Baltursol in familiar waters — searching for a spark

lydia ko talks at the podium

Lydia Ko ended 2022 on top of the golf world. Now, she enters the KPMG Women's PGA Championship searching for that same spark.

Jack Hirsh

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Lydia Ko belted a ball off Balusrol’s 18th tee and immediately grimaced. She took one hand off the club and watched as the ball spun up into the breeze and sailed wide right of the fairway into the deep bluegrass rough. She hung her head and asked her caddie for another ball. It was only a practice round, but her body language already showed signs of distress.

This hasn’t been the year Ko hoped for — far from it — especially after a return to prominence in 2022. Last year, we got a glimpse of the Ko of old. Confident. Free-spirited. Happy. Three wins and a return to world No. 1 (along with an engagement) will do that for a golfer.

But just six months into 2023, that confidence has all but evaporated. She’s yet to register a win on the LPGA Tour this year (although she has won on the LET back in January) and has just one top 10, with missed cuts in two of her last four starts. Golf is a mental game, and on Wednesday at the KPMG Women’s PGA, it was obvious that Ko is not her normal self.

“If only I knew, then I would do it,” Ko said of what’s changed between this year and last. “It’s a head-scratcher.”

The candidness from such a highly regarded player is refreshing, but it hardly inspires confidence. To be competitve at such a high level over the course of a career, there’s a certain level of bravado that’s required.

“I’m not like the most confident, like cocky, like ‘Oh, yeah, I’m the greatest player,'” Ko admitted. “I sometimes wish I was more like that.”

Wyndham Clark, the newly minted U.S. Open champion, is a great example of this phenomenon. The 29-year-old pro spoke at length last week in Los Angeles about his mindset for success competing among the world’s greatest players. The mantra was simple: Be cocky. It’s a mindset that Ko wishes she embodied.

“I saw some of the interviews from the guys last week, and I was like, ‘Damn, I wish I had that mentality,'” Ko said. “I think that’s such a great place to be at when you’re on the golf course.”

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That mentality was absent Wednesday at Baltusrol. There were no cocky struts down the fairways nor walked-in putts on the greens. Ko might still be the No. 3-ranked played in the world, but her game is trending in the opposite direction.

The classic adage says that when things ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Ko opted to ignore this wisdom after her banner 2022 season. She split with her swing coach and fired her caddie. Despite the most fruitful season in six years, Ko made wholesale changes.

These adjustments aren’t surprising if you think about Ko the person in the same vein as Ko the golfer. The two-time major winner is not driven by trophies and legacy the same way some of her peers are.

“I think especially ever since meeting my husband, I feel like golf, yes, it is work, and when I do it want to put in my 100 percent,” Ko said earlier this year. “While I am playing I want to play the best golf I can. But I’ve been able to embrace it and take in the good and bad and just like make everything and the results be like a bonus rather than me trying to force something out of it. I feel very grateful about the things that have happened in my life on and off the golf course, and that’s just a good place to be able to compete as well.”

Ko, 26, may just be entering another chapter in her career, and, depending how you interpret her actions, what may well could be the final one. The 19-time LPGA Tour winner has long said she has intentions to retire by the age of 30, but with the Hall of Fame on the horizon, could that curtain call come sooner? Who knows.

Ko isn’t one to volunteer that information easily. Her Hall-of-Fame aspirations are tantalizingly close, but to get there, she needs to find the form that propelled her to the top of the game last season.

On Wednesday, that form was MIA. But golf is a funny game, and all it takes is a small spark to form a full-formed wild fire.

“Golf is about momentum,” Ko said. “It doesn’t take much. Golf is one of those weird sports you could miss seven cuts in a row and then win the next week.”

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