News & Opinion

Ko takes comfort in return to Lake Merced

DALY CITY, Calif. – Lydia Ko crouched in the fairway earlier this week and sheepishly examined the plaque embedded in the grass. She already had an honorary membership and a locker at Lake Merced Golf Club.

And now she has her own permanent marker, right there in the 18th fairway.

To say that Ko likes Lake Merced counts as a grand understatement. She loves Lake Merced. She also needs the course – a classic layout with tight, twisting, tree-lined fairways and challenging greens – to rejuvenate her strangely stalled career.

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Lydia Ko seeks to reclaim her top form as she returns to Lake Merced, where she has won 3 times on the LPGA.

It requires no sixth sense to picture Ko cradling the trophy Sunday at the LPGA Mediheal Championship, though she started slowly Thursday with a 3-over 75 (scores). She won this tournament last year, hitting a shot for the ages to subdue Minjee Lee on the first playoff hole. Ko also won at Lake Merced in 2014, her first victory as an LPGA member, and again in ’15.

This history offers context, but the shot on April 29, 2018 – covering 231 yards, struck with her 3-wood, nearly rolling into the hole for an albatross and ultimately stopping 2 feet away for a clutch eagle – prompted the plaque. Lake Merced officials wanted to commemorate what club president Jeff Pero called “one of the best shots ever hit in competitive golf.”

No argument here.

Ko smacked the ball high into the sky, clearing the towering cypress tree that she had clipped one day earlier. This time, the ball landed short of the green and crawled onto the putting surface. The crowd roared louder and louder as the ball improbably tracked toward the hole … and then the fans gasped, dramatically, as it trickled past the right edge.

All in all, she’ll take a 2-foot eagle putt to win.

That helped Ko end a drought of nearly 22 months. Last year’s victory at Lake Merced remains her only LPGA triumph since June 2016, even if she has collected several top-10s along the way.

This seems unfathomable for a player once poised to dominate the game the way Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa did. Ko, who only turned 22 last week, provides a cautionary tale for even the most successful young golfer. Namely, dominance doesn’t always last. Coaching, caddie and equipment changes aren’t always the answer.

Ko, a South Korean-born New Zealander who is perpetually polite and diplomatic, sidesteps detailed theories on her fall from the throne. She now stands No. 17 in the world ranking, still a threat but no longer the game’s transcendent player. Not even close.

And yet the search for a spark persists: Ko recently parted ways with swing coach Ted Oh, she told GolfChannel.com this week. This counts as the latest chapter in Ko’s sometimes turbulent career; last year, an ESPN the Magazine story included criticism of former instructor David Leadbetter (from Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee), who fired back and blamed Ko’s struggles, in part, on her dad’s meddling.

Ko, meanwhile, forges ahead. She tried to put a positive spin on these past 12 months, in which she often planted herself in contention – especially near the end of 2018 – but couldn’t seal the deal.

“Obviously, I wish I had another win in the bag between then and now, but it’s tough to win,” said Ko, a 15-time winner on the LPGA. “The girls are playing great, and sometimes you feel like you played really good but somebody plays better. All you can do is try your best and be positive and confident.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Ko’s slump mirrors that of Jordan Spieth’s on the PGA Tour. They rely on precision in an era defined by power. LPGA courses are becoming longer and longer, so distance matters – and Ko doesn’t hit it especially far (128th on tour in driving distance).

That’s a problem at most venues. Not as much at Lake Merced, where she hopes to rediscover her magic touch.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick