One is trying to escape the clutches of anonymity in the mainstream media. The other is out to silence the press after a public split with her coach and caddie. But as Australian Golf Digest found out, the Minjee Lee–Lydia Ko showdown is just one of many headline acts at this year’s Women’s Australian Open at Royal Adelaide.
She can’t call it a slump; that would be ridiculous. So let’s run with the Ko Go-Slow, and leave tongue implanted in cheek.
Lydia Ko’s greatness is so complete that she appeared to consider the last half of 2016, a winless stretch of – wait for it, five whole months – as a personal disaster.
So here is what happened: Ko, who had won four times in America by July but none in the back half of 2016, pitchforked her Australian caddie, Jason Hamilton, out of the camp with three events of the season remaining. Then, the bombshell. In early December, the New Zealand phenomenon sacked her coach of the past three years, David Leadbetter. None of which can happen, in the Ko world, without drawing a headline.
Hence on the eve of another ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, where she will go in as world No.1 and favourite at Royal Adelaide from February 16, Ko’s future is just a little uncertain.
Once, you could bank on a steady, reliable Ko, knocking them down the centre and capitalising on that smooth putting stroke. She was second behind Japanese star Haru Nomura at The Grange in Adelaide last year and won the tournament at Royal Melbourne the year before, so she plainly loves playing across the ditch in this country. But with regard to 2017, the jury is out.
What is clear is that Ko will confront strong competition at Royal Adelaide, which is hosting the women’s Open for the first time as the tournament goes to the South Australian capital for the second of a contacted three-year run.
Australia’s top-ranked player, Perth’s Minjee Lee, will be there as well as fellow-Olympian Su Oh, the Melburnian who had a breakout year in America, and veteran Karrie Webb. In addition, the Open tends to draw the strongest field of all the Australian tournaments in terms of world rankings because it is co-sanctioned by the LPGA Tour in America with our own ALPG; last year a cluster of the top-10 in the world came to Adelaide, and in 2017, the early entrants included the likes of Ko and Cristie Kerr of the United States, while Golf Australia is hopeful that last season’s sensation Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand will appear.
Ko is not yet 20 but there are issues for her, as Leadbetter suggested. He pointed the finger at her parents, father Gil Hong Ko and mother Bon Sook Hyon, who travel with her. “At this point, their sole occupation is taking care of Lydia’s every need,” Leadbetter said.
“They tell her when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to practise and what to practise. And they expect her to win every tournament. They are good people, who love their daughter and want the very best for her, and Lydia has never been to college and is still young. But they are naive about golf. And at some point, they’ve got to let the bird fly from the nest. I would often think, It’s not easy coaching three people.”
Time will tell if Leadbetter’s scepticism is on the mark. But the facts are that under the tutelage of the previous team, she won four times in the first half of the 2016 season, including a Major, and finished with the silver medal at the Olympic Games, an event that she set herself for.
She finished outside the top-40 in two Majors, the Evian Championship and the Women’s British Open, tantamount to a failure for the New Zealander, and was promptly overtaken in player of the year honours by Jutanugarn of Thailand, who went on to pip Ko for the $US1 million bonus for the LPGA’s season-long points race.
Hamilton’s departure just before the Tour Championship came after he had looped for Ko since 2014, winning 10 times. The Aussie, who has switched to Ha Na Jang’s bag already, had spent what by Ko’s standards is an age on her side; she switched caddies seven times prior to settling on him for a time.
As for Leadbetter, he was the coach she turned to in 2013 soon after turning professional, dumping her lifetime mentor and coach in New Zealand, Guy Wilson. Ko won two Majors and 12 tournaments in her time with Leadbetter, the man who has previously worked with the likes of Nick Faldo and Greg Norman at his Florida academy.
The fallout is considerable. Leadbetter made no secret of the fact he was in conflict with Ko’s parents. “My parting words to Lydia were, ‘Take control of your life. Take control of your golf game. Make more of your own decisions,’” Leadbetter said. “And she said, ‘I’m actually working on that.’ Which was good to hear.”
There is no such drama for Minjee Lee, the 20-year-old Australian who will lead the hopes of her home country in Adelaide. Royal Fremantle’s Lee would love to win her national Open to earn some overdue plaudits in this country; despite winning three times already on the world’s biggest and best women’s tour, she remains largely anonymous. “She’s working in the shadow of Karrie Webb, and Lydia Ko,” said GA’s tournaments director, Trevor Herden. “But she looks like she can be a top-10 player for a long, long time.”
Lee, who won a tournament in her rookie year, 2015, backed it up by winning the Lotte Championship in Hawaii in April and then the Blue Bay LPGA event in China in October to establish herself as one of the best players in the world. Sadly, since she plies her trade away from home for most of the year, the media has not picked up on it, but all that might change if she can win in Adelaide.
She was 20th at The Grange last year, and tied for seventh at Royal Melbourne in 2015, but her big miss was in 2014 at Victoria Golf Club, where as an amateur she was tied for the lead through three rounds only to card a calamitous final-round 78, leaving the way clear for Webb to win. Lee failed under the spotlight back then but she was only 17 at the time; she will present as a much more rounded player in Adelaide this year.
The 2016 Open was a remarkable success in the first of a three-year Golf Australia commitment to hold the premier women’s event in Adelaide’s sandbelt. The organisers planned for a total attendance of 15,000 and actually doubled that figure, with GA’s chief executive Stephen Pitt calling it “clearly one of the best we’ve ever had”.
Adelaide, starved of major golf action since the 1998 men’s Australian Open, embraced the game again, putting a smile on the faces of the people at Events South Australia, the state government’s tourism arm, who gerzumped Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to extract the tournament from Melbourne. The Open will go to Kooyonga next year and appears likely to remain in SA for some time.
As for Royal Adelaide, it has had a minor makeover with changes to the 17th green. The old girl has not hosted a national Open since ’98 when Greg Chalmers won, but it remains one of this country’s finest tracks, with the deft hand of Alister MacKenzie, the famous Scottish architect, upon her.
Adelaide, the city, has shown that it wants the Open; loves the Open. It’s a powerful symbiotic relationship. “We want to keep building the momentum,” Herden said. “The Open is becoming a significant part of that first southern hemisphere swing for the LPGA. Last year was huge and we’d hope this can be even better.”