As Lydia Ko builds a career in golf unlike any 15-year-old before her—with three victories in professional events and the U.S. Women’s Amateur title already to her name—the challenge for her
entourage is to ward off early burnout.
That’s why her coach, fellow New Zealander Guy Wilson,
spends much of his time with his prize student trying to keep
the game fun.
Wilson first began teaching Ko when she was 5 and newly
arrived from South Korea. To maintain her interest in their
practice sessions, he would devise competitions, such as
closest-to-the-pin and chipping contests, the second-grader
going head-to-head with the pro.
Ten years later, he’s doing much the same thing—with a twist.
When Ko was preparing to compete in last year’s Australian Women’s Amateur, Wilson told her he would jump into a
lake fully clothed if she won. Soon enough, he was emailing
her a video clip of him plunging into the water. Before the
final round of the 2012 NSW Open, the first of her wins in a
pro event, Wilson made a similar promise. This time, though,
he’d be wearing golf shoes and a golf cap. Again, he was
forced to make good on his dare via an iPhone clip.
Wilson still hasn’t gone bungee jumping yet—Ko’s “prize”
for her victory at the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open,
AVOIDING STARDOM’S PITFALLS WILL BE
AMATEUR LYDIA KO’S TOUGHEST CHALLENGE
which made her the youngest winner in
LPGA history. “It’s those sort of silly things
that help motivate her at the moment,” says
Wilson, only 31 himself. “Anything that
makes me look stupid.”
The coach’s approach is a counter-balance
to the demands of Ko’s driven parents, who
immigrated to Auckland in 2004 with the
specific aim of developing their clearly
talented daughter into a world-class golfer.
Within a couple of years under Wilson’s
guidance, they encouraged their daughter to
spend six hours a day practicing, a couple of
hours before school and then three or four
more after she had put away her books.
At home, Gil Hong Ko, a former banker,
and his wife, Tina, still hold their Korean
values dear and have little tolerance for
frivolity or chitchat. The family speaks
Korean at home, eats Korean food and
emphasizes the importance of hard work.
Tina travels everywhere with Lydia, while
Gil controls pretty much every aspect of her
career back in Auckland, where he also acts
as a kind of assistant coach.
A senior member of New Zealand’s
Institute of Golf, Wilson says he and Gil have
developed, unintentionally, a good-cop/
Wilson strongly believes Ko should complete the final two
years of high school before taking the plunge in pro golf’s
shark pool some time in 2015. “She knows there’s a process
in place about turning pro, and it’d be a bigger mistake going
too early than going too late,” he says.
But the difficulty of delay lies in the undeniable quality of
Ko’s golf. “Technically, she’s got the ability to hit it exactly
where she wants 99 times out of 100,” Wilson says. “And
mentally, she can block everything out and treat it as though
it’s just a practice shot. Those two aspects of her game are
just freakish really.”
Almost by necessity the young genius leads a double
life. Unflappable and emotionless on the course, at school
and kicking around with friends she is all Kiwi with an
authentic local accent and slang. She especially enjoys
teasing Wilson, who clearly doesn’t mind, “She’ll give a bit
back to me,” he says.
Her intuitive young coach just wants Ko to keep having
fun. For potentially the most precocious talent in golf history,
that is absolutely vital. N