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SportsJanuary 8, 2016

Summer Reissue: Lydia Ko’s Ex Coach on Watching Her Debut Major Win from Afar

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In September Lydia Ko won her first major. Duncan Greive spoke to Guy Wilson, her Auckland-based coach from the age of five until she went pro at 16, about the significance of her achievements.

Guy Wilson first met Lydia Ko when she was just five years old. She walked into the pro shop of the Pupuke club on Auckland’s North Shore, accompanied by her father, and asked for a lesson. For the next decade the pair were inseparable. She was the perfect pupil, calm, diligent, preternaturally gifted. He was the perfect coach for one so young and so brilliant – warm, wise, precise and patient.

Spending countless hours together, their relationship began to resemble that of step-siblings as much as coach and athlete. The sheer volume of time ensured that, along with Wilson’s gentle nature.

Then, in December of 2013, after guiding her to unimaginable success – huge tournament wins, world #1 amateur and top five as a professional after just a tiny handful of tournaments – their partnership was abruptly severed, when she signed to sports powerhouse IMG. Ko was just 16 at the time.

It was six months after I had finished reporting a Metro cover story on Ko, during which I’d spent a good while talking with Wilson. He seemed a peach of a man, generous and hardworking. The move came off as somewhat ruthless –  though who drove it remains anyone’s guess. While he made typically magnanimous noises in the press, I wondered whether inwardly he seethed.

On Monday evening, a dozen hours after Ko had finally won her first major, I called Wilson as he drove home from the Institute of Golf facility in Albany. He’d coached for eight hours that day, in between fielding media calls. I wanted to know how it felt to watch Ko go on and prosper, away from him, after such a long period in which their lives were inextricably linked. And to hear she’d won her first major – in so doing becoming the youngest ever women’s golfer to achieve the feat. I was sure he was happy for her, but that the feelings would be complicated. “It’s kinda cool to still be linked with her this many years down the track,” he told me, and there was only a hint of sadness in his voice.

Did you have any inkling this victory was coming, given her position heading into the final round?

I saw where she was ahead of the round, and told a couple of friends that she was going to win today. Only because, given the situation she was in, and also the players that were in and around her that she was likely to put people off with her ability to hit shots than to be passed. Lexi hits a big ball, but it’s pretty erratic. And the other Korean girl, Mi Hyang Lee, hadn’t been in contention for a major before. So it was a fitting call, and she obviously slammed down the accelerator in the second nine, and ran away from it.

How did you feel when you heard the news?

It’s a relief for me. I’ve known she had the ability to win a major for many years. For me she deserves to have the accolade of being the youngest ever at bloody everything. Because she’s just freakish. And that’s one of the ones which holds the most prestige, to be the youngest player to win a major, so that has eluded her for a while. She just hasn’t had all the parts together in a major. She came second in the Evian a couple of years ago, losing to Suzann Petterson, after leading down the stretch.

It was a relief from my standpoint, because that was the last event she could have claimed that ‘youngest ever’ mantle. So – really cool, really cool. It was only matter of time, when she was going to win one, but whether she was going to be the youngest ever, that would be the big difference.

Was it poignant at all, watching the round – did part of you wish you were on her bag?

I’ve watched her in a number of majors, and at the end of the day it’s her doing her thing. It’s kinda cool just watching it from afar – her just being herself on the golf course and enjoying it, and having everybody, all the media still going on about parts of her game, and how cool, calm and collected she is. So without even being there I still feel a part of the whole thing. So whilst it sucks to A) not be as close to her as I was before or B) even around in the area – from afar it’s still really cool to be associated with her, even at this stage.

Do you remain close?

Yep. I messaged her this morning and said congratulations. And that it was about bloody time. And she replied saying she was relieved, and thanks. So just a simple message is all I need. She’s got enough people wanting her time. There is still communication there, albeit brief.

You seemed friends as much as anything, when I was reporting that story, and I imagine she needed someone like you in her life. I wondered whether when the IMG thing happened, whether that would be lost.

It hasn’t – to an extent. I don’t know what her view is, on how it all went down, how it all unfolded, in terms of the breakup. But I’m not one to hold grudges, and I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, we’re still friends, and I’m still able to message her and say this and that. We obviously don’t talk about swing much, because that’s probably stepping on toes, and I know where the line is. But I’m still just a facebook message away, and she’s pretty damn quick at responding too. But kids like social media anyway, so that works.

After you’d put in so much work, and guided her to that extraordinary point, how did it feel to have it very abruptly taken away when she signed with IMG?

Since her office, essentially, was in our backyard, it was difficult to expect to stay in the picture if I wasn’t able to go with her. And travel, and that sort of thing. And as a person plying their trade in the states, and everywhere else in the world, they needed a base in the States. I wasn’t able to offer that.

Also I guess they probably felt they wanted something fresh, and in their minds, they’re thinking ‘there must be more out there’. Even though we’d just got better and better and better and better, and she’d gone from next to nowhere to number one amateur in the world, and top three as a pro. And there was no question to ask about performance. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t my choice, I couldn’t argue it.

I could be a dick about it, and say nasty things. But I just had to bite my tongue and see how it went. And, to her credit, she’s still doing bloody well. Obviously back then she had the ability to win, and she still does – so that’s great. And she’s slowly climbing to the top of the world. I mean, she was three or four when I was with her as a pro, with only a quarter of the amount of events. And now she’s two, pushing on the door of one. She has improved, which is great, I didn’t want her to fall on her sword. But it’s good to see she’s pushing on. Mind you, anyone could teach her what to do, and she’d probably figure it out.

Watching the round, it was almost like once she realised she had it won, she didn’t just cruise there – she floored it. I wondered if, were you another competitor in the LPGA, would you be worried?

If I was competitor on her tour, and I was in my mid-thirties, like a lot of them are, I’d be worried to hell. To have someone relatively young and small in stature, with the maturity to just dominate a golf course in a major championship under all sorts of pressure – it doesn’t look good for the rest of women’s golf.

That said, the course did help her. A course where distance at a premium, but it’s more pinpoint accuracy is key. But if she gets her putter going, nobody’s a chance. She just hits so many damn good shots that if she’s holing her putts she’s going to hit some damn good scores.

Now that you’re not coaching her, have you got any more Lydia Kos lined up?

The good thing about what she’s done is made a lot of other kids want what she’s got. And to a certain extent we can tell them how she got it. And they’re listening. They’re willing to put the time and the commitment in, and pay for it – which is great. Because there is a bit of a trend from kids to come to us and say ‘I want to be the next Lydia Ko, and I want to do what she’s done’. And they trust what we’ve done to get her there – it seems so close. It’s not like they want to be the next Tiger Woods – we wouldn’t have a clue what he did, how he trained. Whereas we were so intimate with Lydia, and that relationship’s still there – people are coming to us and saying ‘we want to get our daughter or our son into this, and we’re willing to listen to what you say we should do’.

Is there one which stands out?

A girl called Bo Hyun Park. She’s a 12-year-old out of Gulf Harbour. She’s got very similar attributes to Lydia. Not real chatty, very focused, really damn skilled. Not as strong mentally as Lydia, but who knows?

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