After attending and closely watching several LPGA and PGA tournaments this year, it is easy to see that the golfers on both tours face personal challenges in their game which change week to week. Like no other sport, golf presents a different course each week and each day. Though the topical landscape does not change during the events, the hole placement, order of play, and daily weather present new challenges for the athletes. These rules are the same for both tours.
What should fascinate any golf fan watching week-to-week, is how do individual players work through these challenges and is there a difference between how a female or male athlete faces their game weaknesses as they grow with their sport?
Lydia Ko and Jordan Spieth have golf careers with surprising comparisons beginning with their rookie years not quite a decade ago.
Ko became the first player from New Zealand to win an LPGA Tour event when she earned a sponsor invite to the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open. At 15, she was the youngest winner of a 72-hole event. And, the fifth amateur to win following Polly Riley, Pat O’Sullivan, Catherine LaCoste and JoAnne Carner. Ko successfully defended her title a year later and was granted tour membership in 2014.
That year, she won the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year by amassing the highest rookie point total ever in history (1,720 points), a record that stands today. Her stat line read: three wins, two runner-up finishes, 15 top-10 finishes, and 23 top-40 finishes in 26 events played.
Spieth became the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931 when he won the 2013 John Deer Classic in his rookie season. At 19, he was the fifth player under age 20 to win on tour following John McDermott, Harry Cooper, Ralph Guldahl and Charles Kocsis. Spieth won the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award in a year where he recorded one win, three runner-up finishes, nine top-10 finishes, and 14 top-40 finishes in 23 events played.
Both players established themselves on tour in a landscape that was trending toward the game growing younger.
While Ko and Spieth both experienced success during their early years on tour – Ko with 12 victories in three years and Spieth with 11 victories in four years – they each had a period of time without entering the winner’s circle.
For Ko, it was two years and 11 months to go from 15 to 16 wins following a 2018 victory compared to Spieth at three years and eight months to record his 12th win following his third major win at the 2017 Open Championship. The wins occurred in a span of a couple of weeks in 2021 with Spieth first on April 4 followed by Ko less than two weeks later on April 17.
“I know there were times that I wondered…I don’t know if I’m ever going to be back in the winner’s circle,” said Ko. “I think with Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama winning and I know it’s been a while since they won as well, that kind of gave me a little bit of hope saying maybe I could follow that trend.”
Ko continued, “When you’re playing alongside the best female golfers it’s not easy. I’m proud of the way I stayed patient along the way.”
One of the performance statistics that Spieth noted was a challenge for him during this time was his putting. In 2018, he ranked in the bottom third of the tour players in strokes gained putting (123rd). The following season he improved to second, but a year later fell to the middle of the pack at 105th.
He described his setup and stroke as being key parts of putting great which at times had been off for him during rounds. When Spieth reads putts, he looks at where to start the putt and the speed to put on the ball. A routine in stance helps him prepare for the start of the stroke followed by an emphasis on accelerating through the ball and seeing it going in from the beginning. The goal of stepping in and making a putts path come alive has been the difference.
On the other hand, Ko’s putting performance on the greens has always stood out as a strength. She has led the tour in putting average in four years since 2014 and has ranked in the top six in seven of nine years.
|2015||1st: 1.74||1st: 1.70|
|2018||13th: 1.77||48th: 1.76|
|2021||1st: 1.72||3rd: 1.71|
|2022||1st: 1.73||53rd: 1.75|
While putting is essential for lowering scores, increasing length off the tee has helped Ko and Spieth reach the greens more effectively. Ko’s focus on technique, simplifying her swing and removing doubts in her head has contributed to driving the ball farther.
In 2014, Ko averaged under 250 yards per drive, ranking 66th on tour. Her distance remained consistent in the following years except that her ranking decreased – to as low as 152 out of 158 players in 2019 – as players hit the ball farther. In 2020, her work to become stronger as an athlete and gain muscle provided an average increase of 10 yards per drive and ranked her 57th, back to a position similar to her early years.
Spieth also gained distance off the tee in his career going from averaging under 290 yards per drive in 2013 to over 300 yards by 2020. In 2022, he averaged 308 yards per drive, his highest distance recorded in 10 years on tour.
Spieth qualified for the TOUR Championship and had a good season where he struck the ball really well. His approach performance ranked in the top 15% of players on tour, but his putting could have been more consistent.
“For me it’s about getting better every day, making a bit of progress,” said Spieth.
Ko currently ranks in the top two percent of players on tour in 2022 in strokes gained approach and putting, averaging more than a stroke on the field on these shots. Her performance has led to finishing in the top 25 in 16 of 17 events, which is the best of any player on tour. Ko will be looking to win the Race to the CME Globe for a third time in his career following wins in 2014 and 2015.
|Driving distance||255 yards||308 yards|
|Strokes Gained Approach||1.18||0.42|
|Strokes Gained Putting||1.26||-0.21|
As both Ko and Spieth meet their golfing challenges week-to-week on tour, spectators admire their determination and focus while observing them on some of the most beautiful courses in the world.