Tuesday, December 24, 2013

When the Personal Meets the Professional Meets the National Meets the Global: Lydia Ko Edition

There are so many layers to the most recent twist in the Lydia Ko story that it's no surprise onions are a New Zealand export.  If the break-up only a few days before Christmas of an 11-year player-coach mentoring relationship--one often compared to sibling or parental dynamics to convey its depth and scope--isn't enough to bring you to tears of sadness, maybe the paucity of hard facts and the complicated agendas of those who best know them but aren't sharing them are enough to evoke tears of frustration.  I mean, we should be used to the eagerness of onlookers and outsiders to quip and judge on what amounts to a whim--it is the intertubes, after all--but when a teenager the media has helped build up seems to turn on her on a dime, handing stones to the stoners....  Well, let's just say, welcome to the big time, Lydia Ko!

For those interested in the truth, very little of what's been said publicly stands up to much scrutiny.
  • Ko's emphasis on the logistical complications of her moving to the States and competing full-time on the LPGA while her life-long coach Guy Wilson remains in New Zealand begs the question of whether she asked him to go with her, belies the fact that they had made a quasi-long-distance relationship work quite well during her amazingly successful amateur and early professional career, and fuels speculation that her new representatives at IMG are really behind the switch to Sean Hogan and David Leadbetter.
  • Wilson's generous and moving statement in response to his firing (reprinted in full by Golfweek) is frankly undermined if Steve Williams was acting as his surrogate when he was interviewed on Radio New Zealand.  Williams's "I don't think he had any inkling" of the decision can't possibly be right when ONE Sport mentioned, in an article posted on November 21, that Williams was "among those stunned Lydia Ko has yet to sort out her coaching and management team."  (Matt Richens confirms that neither Ko nor Wilson had been acting normally over the past month.)  Williams's claim that Wilson has "had no compensation for his time and effort" similarly stretches credulity (particularly when we don't know the terms of their relationship, much less what kind of Christmas gifts or New Year's bonus the Kos are planning for Wilson).
  • Leadbetter's claim that Ko and her family initiated contact with him is also a little hard to believe, given his partnership with IMG:
At least Leadbetter understands the catch-22 he's in.  As he told Randall Mell, "If she plays well, it will be because she's a great player....  If she doesn't, we will be the bad guys."

Probably the truth is a little embarrassing for all the parties involved.  Like contract negotiations with Wilson broke down when IMG refused to offer him enough to move to the States or make his trans-hemispheric travel worthwhile....

Rather than go down that speculative road myself, however, I'd rather focus on what others' speculations reveal about the intersecting personal/professional/national/global relationships brought out by Lydia Ko's meteoric rise to the top 5 in the world of women's golf.

Randall Mell is on to something when he points out that nationalism has a lot to do with the intensity of the reaction to Ko's decision coming out of many in the New Zealand media and golfing establishment:
There’s more behind the emotional reaction to Ko’s decision than just coaching implications. For New Zealanders, it’s about her Kiwi connections and nationalistic pride. In fact, in presenting news of the coaching change, a Television New Zealand reporter asked if it might “signal a shift away from New Zealand Golf.” 
Ko is something of a national treasure in New Zealand, and her rise in fame has brought with it concerns over loyalties and how she plans to align herself in the future. During Ko’s first news conference after announcing she was turning pro in October, New Zealand media peppered her with questions about where she planned to establish her professional base and even what nationalistic affiliation she planned for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 
Ko was born in South Korea but her family moved to New Zealand when she was 6. She became a New Zealand citizen when she was 12. That evolved partly out of her former coach’s push for citizenship so Ko would become eligible for national funding. In fact, New Zealand Golf has funded Ko’s world travels the last three years. There are questions back in New Zealand over whether Ko will re-establish her connection to South Korea, where women’s golf is immensely popular and more endorsement opportunities for women abound.
Matt Richens is one of the New Zealanders raising such questions:
If this is a Ko decision, it seems an odd one. The pair have always seemed to get on well off the course and their success on it was first rate. 
Ko was the world's No 1 amateur as a 13-year old, a title she held until turning professional. She won four professional tournaments as an amateur and one as a professional and has never missed a cut in any of her 27 professional tournaments. 
She's brilliant and Wilson has played a huge part in that. It also continued while Ko was travelling and Wilson stayed in New Zealand. 
If it's not Ko's decision, but one from IMG, then there is more reason to worry for New Zealand. 
If IMG can persuade her to leave her longtime coach and someone with whom she shared more of a brother-sister relationship than a coach-player one, then what else can it do? 
In October, Ko said she would always play for New Zealand and wanted to represent this country at the 2016 Olympics. 
But should IMG start throwing its considerable weight around, what's to stop it working out it could get a far bigger bang for its buck in the Asian market if Ko played under the Korean flag and turned her back on New Zealand all together. 
If IMG is calling the shots, it could happen.
I can see why the worries are so intense that Ko might choose Kimchi Nation over Kiwi Nation as part of an IMG-led effort to turn her into a global brand, but it seems to me they're at least a bit overblown.  Let's face it, a huge part of what makes Ko so distinctive globally is precisely her New Zealand connection.  That video with her buddy from the All-Blacks in which she announced she's going pro?  Brilliant.  That accent and attitude?  Endearing.  Why would she reject her adopted country, her hyphenated identity, and national hero status to become one of at least a dozen world-class South Korean golfers?  Why would IMG think that's a more profitable path?  Yes, she's leaving the nest, moving to the U.S., and taking on the world via the LPGA.  But Ai Miyazato is no less Japanese for doing that.  Se Ri Pak is no less Korean.  Karrie Webb is no less Australian.  Suzann Pettersen is no less Norwegian.  Lorena Ochoa was no less Mexican.  Annika Sorenstam was no less Swedish.  And so on.

Admittedly, these players aren't perfect examples, as they lived in their home countries for a long time and are natural-born, not naturalized, citizens.  But who would be a good example?  Amy Yang didn't move to Australia until she was 15 and didn't stay Down Under long enough for a sense of pride in her accomplishments to turn into a widespread sense of betrayal or ingratitude at her departure.  Maybe the Wongluekiets/Songs?  Well, they chose their father's nationality when they turned pro instead of their mother's, while both Ko's parents are South Korean.  And therein lies the rub.  Already you can find in some corners of the intertubes the same criticisms of Ko's parents being floated and tried on for size as have been circulated ad nauseum about Michelle Wie's parents.  Greedy.  Controlling.  Clueless.

I guess personal and professional and national loyalty is a particularly touchy issue for immigrants-turned-citizens.  (And not just in New Zealand.)  It's almost as if someone who's chosen to become a citizen of another country has to keep making that choice whenever her circumstances change in the slightest.  Don't get me wrong:  this is a huge change.  And Ko's only been a New Zealand citizen for something like 4 years (or a quarter of her life), even though culturally she's been a Kiwi for almost 3 times that long.  Sure, the level of concern at possibly losing Ko helps outsiders understand how much she is valued and appreciated by her fellow citizens and how crucial her success is to building a new New Zealand identity.  But Kiwis who might be tempted to turn on Ko out of a feeling that she did one of their own wrong or who jump to conclusions about her parents' motivations or her future plans should understand that they run the risk of inflaming a backlash that could do more to drive her out of the country than anything else.

I think it's time for everyone involved to be their best selves and set an example for the rest of us.  The Kos ought to find as many ways as possible to thank the individuals and organizations who helped Lydia become the golfer and person she is, reassert her commitment to Kiwi Nation, and give back in tangible and intangible ways to golf in New Zealand.  Wilson ought to speak for himself, stick up for his former student, and encourage his mates to show a little more respect for Ko's decision.  Leadbetter and Hogan had better be praising Wilson effusively every time Ko does something good in 2014 (which should be quite often).

Let's face it:  what's done is done.  As much as onlookers, outsiders, and even insiders may wish New Zealand were closer to the places Ko will be competing, and that Ko could maintain an uncomplicated Kiwi identity for the rest of her life, that's not going to happen.  There will be complications no matter what she chooses.  For those who wish she had brought her entire New Zealand team with her to the States--bringing a little bit of home to her new base of operations in a time of transition--consider that her team would have been facing culture shock just as intensely as she would and would have had to be learning the ropes and putting down roots for themselves while allowing Ko to focus single-mindedly on golf.  For those who wish she had waited till after Christmas and New Year's to make her decision, consider that Wilson's holidays would have been ruined by stress, anxiety, and uncertainty as surely as they've been ruined by rejection and disappointment.  And given that the new LPGA season starts in January in the Bahamas, Ko couldn't have kept everyone on the hook for much longer.

The bottom line is that things are going to get more complicated for Ko down the road, not less.  I don't know whether she's a dual citizen of New Zealand and South Korea, but let's assume for the moment that she is.  If New Zealand's and South Korea's citizenship laws are anything like the U.S.'s and Japan's, Ko has about 4 years before she has to decide which one to keep and which one to drop; if they're more liberal (and sensible), she could remain a dual citizen for the rest of her life.  It gives me a headache to even start thinking about what country's (or which countries') tax laws are going to apply to her in 2014, much less beyond!

But that's part of the deal these days when it comes to trying to make history on a global stage, as Ko is no doubt focused on doing.  What's exciting about the attempt is that no matter how many scripts she's trying to write or how many the rest of the world is trying to impose on her, none of us know which ones will end up being performed and enacted, or for how long before they get disrupted or replaced.  All that's certain is that Ko will need every ounce of resilience and persistence she's accumulated over her 1st 16 years to make the next 16 truly amazing!

[Update 1 (1:28 pm): Paul Lewis of the New Zealand Herald makes very good points about Ko's future challenges.]


Dave Andrews said...

The scrutiny on her performance will now be very intense in her first few LPGA events of 2014. If she stumbles the critics of her decision to leave her longtime coach will be heard the loudest. I think it was a bad decision to change coaches, but I wish her the best. She is an amazing talent with unlimited potential. We shall see if it is realized. Here is a link to a youtube video that has many very cute scenes of her working with Guy Wilson when she was just 8 years old. It is obvious how much true affection he has for his young (former) student. I feel bad for him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzRV0WDNm58

The Constructivist said...

I don't think just for the first few events of the year, Dave--it's going to be all year. It's hard to think of a young player for whom expectations have been higher before even arriving on the LPGA. Ji-Yai Shin and Ai Miyazato had preparation as pros before ever coming over here; Michelle Wie had time to deflate expectations by turning pro so soon and taking so long to focus on the LPGA....

Personally, I feel terrible for Wilson, too. But I still hesitate to cast him in the role of innocent victim here.

Colin MacGillivray said...

Excellent summary.
As well as knowing Lydia personally I have triple citizenship, UK, where I was born, New Zealand, where I moved aged 19 and Australia acquired in 1992. (In my opinion the more passports= the more option = better.) New Zealand is a tiny isolated nation and really possessive and sensitive about its stars. She may become a "world citizen" which I feel I am, with no undivided loyalty to any nation. She should look at basing herself in a country where there is no tax on income earnt overseas. Like Sarawak Malaysia where I'm now retired.

The Constructivist said...

Thanks, Colin! A buddy of mine taught in Malaysia for awhile and loved it! Enjoy!

Although what do you think of the argument in Lydia's case that since taxpayers helped pay for her int'l travel as an amateur, she ought to pay NZ taxes for the same length of time?