‘Be an athlete’: Lydia Ko gets stronger in quest to take her game to the next level

Lydia Ko’s quest to gain as much muscle as she can has her looking to buy new pants.

“I want her screen saver to be Serena (Williams),” said instructor Sean Foley.

Ko emerged from the LPGA’s 166-day quarantine with noticeably more muscle on her petite frame. It hasn’t been easy keeping it on while traveling, particularly with the restrictions of COVID-19. The former No. 1 tries to keep her jumping workouts to a minimum in hotel rooms when she’s on a top floor.

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, pushed to October due to the pandemic, is being played this week at historic Aronimink Golf Club, a 124-year old Donald Ross design west of Philly. Ko said she doesn’t feel like it’s a course that favors any particular player, but even the longest players on tour are keen to talk about its length. With Aronimink playing especially soft in the fall, hybrids have been overworked early week. The official scorecard has the par-70 layout at 6,577 yards. Tees will likely be moved up throughout the competition.

Ko, who ranks 53rd in driving distance at 256 yards and drinks one protein shake per day, has taken up rock climbing to increase her grip strength and arm strength.

“Men apply way more force into the grip than women do,” said Foley. “It’s not really force into the ground, it’s force into the grip.”

She plays tennis at Lake Nona with Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, Lindy Duncan and Jennifer Song. Goes running too, even though she’s not really a fan.

“I don’t like running,” said Ko, “but I like the feel of after a run. You sweat it out, and I feel like some of the stress or things you kind of keep in are expressed out. I like that bit.”

Ko is longer this season, by nearly 11 yards according to LPGA stats, and Foley said that’s also a result of changes they’ve made to her technique.

When Foley first began working with Ko, he told the 15-time tour winner that the reverse move that caused her to hook the ball reminded him of a tippy canoe.

“Lydia is a pure rotator,” he said. “Over the way she stopped turning, so she had to find other ways to generate energy, which aren’t really good for face control and path. When she hits her shot that she hates to the left, I just said stop tipping the canoe.”

Much of their work together has been focused on answering the many questions she now has swirling in her head. Foley tells her to dig a hole, pile all her bad thoughts in it, cover it up and never think of it again.

For so many great players, the game came naturally, he said, and when it grows difficult, they suddenly become contemplative and intellectual about it, when it was never that way before.

“So that’s the tricky part,” he said. “How do you go back to something you don’t remember building?”

In the case of the tippy canoe, Ko actually went out to her backyard with a “canoe tombstone,” put it in the ground and snapped a picture for Foley.

“We’ve all been playing the game for so long, so sometimes (you say), ‘Man, where did that come from?’ ” said Ko. “I think it’s just as important to kind of clear those questions in your head like mentally and philosophically, and I think he’s really helped me in that aspect, where I just kind of bury it and then just walk away and try and not think about it again.”

Ko lost 15 pounds in 2018 in an effort to gain more speed and has put on about 10 pounds of muscle since then.

Bryson DeChambeau’s physical transformation was a hot topic in 2020, even before he overpowered Winged Foot to win the U.S. Open. Ko calls DeChambeau’s efforts that week incredible and is quick to point out that he didn’t win that championship on strength alone.

“I don’t know personally, how much muscle gain I can have,” she said. “My trainers and I are working hard to hopefully get stronger.”

This quest isn’t a race either, Foley notes. In their 10 years together, Justin Rose gained 35 yards over time. Problems often arise when the search for distance leads to momentous change overnight. DeChambeau’s changes, he said, are highly-engineered.

Lexi Thompson joked last week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic that of course she wouldn’t mind hitting it farther, but that she wouldn’t want to put on 40 pounds to get it.

Most LPGA setups don’t reward exceptional length anyway, notes Golf Channel analyst and major champion Karen Stupples.

Current No. 1 Jin Young Ko won two majors last year and swept the LPGA’s season-long awards while ranking 76th in driving distance at 258 yards. When Ko won five times in 2015, she averaged 250 off the tee, about 6 yards shorter than she is now.

Plus, it’s more difficult for most women to pack on muscle.

“Naturally, we don’t have the same chemicals in our body that allow us to build the same way that a guy does,” said Stupples. “To even gain 10 pounds of lean muscle is a huge thing for a woman to do.”

When a woman dramatically changes her physique, it can open up the door to unwanted criticism. It takes an especially single-minded and determined approach, Stupples noted, to not take harsh comments personally.

“That’s the problem,” said Foley, “the vanity, the social unconscious biases of how a woman should look, and how many people walk around with that as their idea and that’s their comparison. Whereas to me, you’re an athlete. Be an athlete.”

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