Lydia Ko talks new clubs, firing caddies and losing the world No 1 ranking
As she cracks a wide smile, Lydia Ko raises her left hand, flexes her bicep and clenches a fist.
"She's pregnant, but she's still training hard," New Zealand's finest ever golfer says, referring to two-time Olympic shot-put champion Dame Valerie Adams, who is due to become a mum in October.
Heads turn in the clubhouse of the Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Arkansas, where she has just given a brief news conference.
Though the former women's golf world No 1 is the most recognisable figure on the LPGA tour, you'd doubt most people in this near-caricatured corner of America – a Walmart-sponsored event in Northwestern Arkansas – would have a clue who she was talking about.
"Val's amazing," the 20-year-old superstar continues, explaining to an LPGA media minder.
"She was with me at the Olympics last year - she's such a hero back in New Zealand. Her brother is in the NBA – their whole family is amazing."
Chalk it up: Ko is a big-time fan of Dame Valerie.
IN A GOOD SPACE
More than almost any other Kiwi athlete, Ko has a degree of mystery around her that seems to belie the fact that, for the past four years, she's been the most high profile woman's golfer in the world.
Since she turned professional, as a 17-year-old in 2014, and embarked on a career that has, so far, yielded two major championships and 14 LPGA tournament titles, the same broad condemnations have slowly built and stuck.
That her parents have too much of a say in her approach to golf. That she's always firing caddies. That she doesn't give much away in the media. That it's hard to know who she really is.
Heading into this week's US Women's Open at Trump National Golf Course in New Jersey, one thing is for certain: Ko – who, like her hero Dame Val, won an Olympic silver medal at last year's Rio Olympics - is deep into the toughest stretch of her career right now.
Though she has notched up seven top ten finishes this year, Ko is yet to claim her first LPGA tournament victory of 2017; even missing the cut, for just her second time as a pro, at the Kia Classic in California, in March.
Ko is now a year removed from her last victory on the tour; her longest drought since she joined it.
Consequently, the world No. 1 ranking – which Ko held for 85 straight weeks - was ceded to Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn on June 13. Since then, the Orlando-based Kiwi has slipped back to fourth.
At first glance, it would seem her shake-up following last year's LPGA season hasn't worked out. Along with swapping clubs from Calloway to PXG, Ko fired widely-respected swing coach David Leadbetter and bought on board Garry Gilchrist, who also mentors Jutanugarn.
Even with virtually no spotlight on her in Rogers, Ko – in her second tournament back from a three-week 'reset' – couldn't find her rhythm.
After briefly flirting with the cut at the Northwest Arkansas Championship, Ko would finish up in a tie for 25th while new world No. 1 Ryu So-yeon would claim the US$2 million (NZ$2.7m) title. Ko had won it in 2016.
Yet the North Shore-raised Kiwi seems far from a young athlete under a siege of expectations and pressure, right now. In person, she is as affable, polite and accommodating as the portraits of her by fellow LPGA pros and media often paint her.
Ko's eagerness to talk about New Zealand – she hasn't been home for more than a week in four years – is genuinely affecting, as is her ready smile.
Sitting on a couch by the elevator doors on the second floor of the Pinnacle Country Club, the three-time NZ Sportswoman of the Year insists that despite how it may look on the outside, she's in a good space right now.
"I think I'm more OK than what people think," Ko says.
"It was so much fun being in that position (No 1) and obviously now it motivates more to hopefully reach that position again. But, especially with rankings, it is not all about you.
"Even if I play good golf but somebody plays better, they just get a bit more ahead of you. It's really out of your hands. I'm enjoying it and obviously I'm going to work really hard to try and put myself in contention.
"I think, to me, it's more important you're staying happy, still enjoying it and playing solid golf rather than thinking about 'hey, when and if am I going to return to being the number one ranked player?' I think that is less important. It's more important for me to put myself in good positions, week-in, week-out."
As she speaks, you almost get a sense of relief that she's not the world number one any more. That, for a time, the weight of 84 weeks was a pleasant one to let go of.
DEFENDING THE CHANGES
For the majority of Ko's critics, the big changes she made late last year have been the defining aspects in her struggles in 2017. Ko, however, is confident she made the right choices with her new clubs and coach.
"When I got to try the PXG clubs, I was amazed at how they felt," the former world No 1 says, of her new gear.
"I think because they're expensive, people think they're just expensive clubs. But I do feel like they are great performing clubs too and I think that's why a lot of the players are using [them], not just me.
"[They] feel great and I feel like I've been able to see some great results with them. I guess the way to prove it is for me to win, but I feel like I've played a lot of solid golf with it. I trust them."
Caddies are easier to change that clubs. Ko – who went through seven in her rookie LPGA season – has gone through three over the last 12 months. Speaking to Golf Digest, her last caddy Garry Matthews, whom she fired in April, suggested: "she needs to wake up on caddie-player relationships."
Yet Ko, who has Peter Godfrey, the 2017 LPGA Caddy of the Year, holding her bag at Trump National, insists finding the right connection with a caddy is something she's working been working on since she was a rookie.
"With caddies, you are on the course for five hours," she says.
"You're training and doing all that. It ends up that you're with that person for eight hours a day and that's a long time when you think about it. I might not spend as much time with my sister for that long.
"During that time, I was getting to know the people. I think it wasn't that I fired that amount of caddies - it was kind of a period where I needed to know what I preferred and what I thought would work best.
"Nothing's perfect and no one's perfect, so you've just got to know how this person (works, and) if you're able to work with them over that period."
Upon being let go last year, Leadbetter voiced his concern that Ko's parents had too much influence on the young star's approach to golf.
"At some point," Leadbetter also told Golf Digest, "they've got to let the bid fly from the nest."
The fact that Ko's mum Bon Sook Hyon sat metres away from her daughter as Stuff spoke to her seems to suggest that the bird ain't taking wings just yet.
For her followers in New Zealand and abroad, it is almost easy to forgot that Ko is still only 20. Despite the struggles this year, she's still a golfer who, regardless of gender, was the youngest ever world No 1 and the youngest major winner – at the 2015 Evian Championship - since Young Tom Morris in 1868.
Yet the Kiwi star – who is into her third year studying pyschology extramurally through a South Korean university – reiterated plans she made public in 2015; that she will retire around 30.
"That still remains the same," Ko says. "Obviously when I get closer to that age, it might change a little bit – but that was what I thought would be perfect when I got on tour when I was 16, turning 17.
"That's like 13, 14 years on tour. I think that's long enough. I started golf when I was five. With any other jobs, you think '30, man, you're retiring at such a young age.' [But] some sports like gymnastics maybe, you might retire at even an earlier age. So it just depends on what you plan to do.
"I'm hoping to do a few more things after I retire from golf. Just because I retire from golf, it doesn't necessarily mean I'll just eat, sleep and play all day. I'm pretty sure I'll keep myself occupied doing something outside of that."
For those outside Ko's direct orbit, the mystery around her remains. Like any athlete who has grown up in the media spotlight, she answers questions with polite restraint.
Yet, in speaking with the Kiwi golfing prodigy, it is hard to figure a golfer wallowing in expectation. She laughs, jokes about and exudes an obvious lightness. Results speak for themselves, of course, but, in golf, everything can change with one good round. Ko says that's what keeps everything in perspective for her.
"I think that's the really cool thing about golf," she says. "One day you could shoot 62 and the next day you could shoot 72.
"You feel like there's not a lot of difference between the day before and today, but that's golf. Those little things kind of happen, and no matter what ranked player you are or how well you played that week, there's always something you can get better at.
"I think that really motivates all players. No matter how good you are or what position you're in, there's always something you can reach for and get better at."
Sunday Star Times