Much has been written and said about New Zealander Lydia Ko’s resurgence this season. She won three times for her first multi-win season since 2016. She topped the money list, won Player of the Year Honours, reached World No 1 in the rankings and took home the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.
For many, it was confirmation that she is back among the game’s elite once again. Ko was a teenage phenom. She dominated the tour from 2014 to 2016, winning 12 times, including two majors In February 2015, she became the youngest ever World No. 1 of either gender at 17 years, 9 months and 9 days. To put that in perspective, Tiger Woods had yet to win his first U.S. Amateur at that age. He was busy winning the U.S Junior Amateur.
View this post on Instagram
But then Ko failed to win on the LPGA for the first time in 2017. She won once in 2018 but then went almost three years between April 2018 and – April 2021 for her next win. It prompted much handwriting and questions about her career. Ko naturally struggled with her confidence too.
But here’s the kicker – she’s today still only 25 years old. That’s an age most would consider the beginning of a golfer’s prime. The legendary American Julie Inkster, who won 31 LPGA events, including 7 majors, didn’t win her first tournament until she was 23. Ko had won 14 times before her 20th birthday, including twice as an amateur.
View this post on Instagram
In a prescient ESPN article on Ko from 2013, the author writes: “There’s a familiar adage that age is relative. “But relative to what? It depends on the circumstances and the person. In sports, the saying applies to those who achieve things that seem beyond their years as well as to those who achieve despite their years.”
With the blistering start to her career, Ko raised expectations to a level that only those considered the greatest of all time can sustain.
The likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam, who maintained their level of dominance and success for years, are rare exceptions. They spoil us by making the extremely difficult, the improbable even, look routine.
Most golfers, even great ones, go through ups and downs. Rory McIlroy looked like Tiger Woods from 2012 to 2014 but hasn’t won a Major since. Jordan Spieth’s career trajectory has been similar to Ko’s, albeit at an older age.
In the age of social media, the increased scrutiny of athletes, and the need for sports content 24 hours a day, the downs get put under a microscope in a way that even Woods did not have to deal with.
Yes, Ko let the tears flow after winning the season ending CME Group Tour Championship earlier this month. It was a clear indication of how much winning means to her. Yet to her credit, she seems to have a more grounded perspective of what she has endured, which is why she said in 2021 that she didn’t want people to say she was “back”.
“A lot of things have changed since I was No. 1,” Ko told Golf Digest in June 2022. “A lot of experiences have changed my perspective, the way I look at things. But mostly it’s because I’m not trying to be who I was. I’m just striving to be the best person and best player I can be right now, so I don’t want to compare myself to my past.”
She’s learned to be patient and trust in her process. If she does the right things, the results will follow, even if her mother jokes that she was a better golfer at 15 than she is at 25.
It’s great to see Ko winning again. She’s a true global star and her success is good for the game. With her win at the CME, Ko has also climbed back to World No. 1. Remarkably, she already has 25 points, leaving her just two points away from the 27 she needs to qualify for the World Golf Hall of Fame.
For the record, to qualify for the Hall of Fame, a player must have won either an LPGA major, the Vare Trophy or the Rolex Player of the Year Honors. Ko has won two of each of those already.
Yet the truth is at 25, Ko still has most of her career ahead of her. At the same time, if she were to retire today, she already has a career worth celebrating. It’s only our outsized expectations that blind us to it.