In 2015, when she was just 17 years, nine months and nine days of age, Ko also became the youngest men’s or women’s player to be ranked world No. 1 in professional golf.
If winning tournaments or setting records provides a buzz, it is not the be-all and end-all for Ko, a message that is reinforced by her coach Sean Foley: “Just because you win another event, yes, you’ll be happy for that day, but it doesn’t make you a better person or worse person the day after.”
“Sometimes for me, I identify myself with just the way I played that day,” Ko told CNN Living Golf’s Shane O’Donoghue. “And sometimes if I don’t play well I go: ‘Oh man, you’re so stupid,’ or things like that.
“And I think it’s very easy to kind of connect your identity to that, but I’ve just got to separate that. And my goal is to hopefully have the career grand slam, I’ve been close in the three majors that I haven’t won yet. And that would be probably my end goal.”
In her golf career so far, Ko has won the Evian Championship and the ANA Inspiration. She has also come within just a few shots of winning the other three majors, finishing second at the Women’s PGA Championship in 2016, as well as tying third at the US Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open.
“And I’m sure I’ll be very, very happy, but I think sometimes results are so overrated and me being happy off the golf course, I think is the best thing that will make me happy on the course as well.”
Starting fast is something Ko knows all about.
As well as her record-breaking victory at the New South Wales Women’s Open in 2012 aged 14, she became the youngest winner of a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour event in the same year.
When she was 17, she set an LPGA record for most money earned by a rookie, raking in $2,089,033.
In 2015, Ko became the youngest player in the “modern era” (post-1900) of either gender to win a major championship, winning the Evian Championship as an 18-year-old.
However, after winning the Mediheal Championship in 2018, her fortunes changed.
For the first time in her young career, Ko endured a barren spell, entering 37 events between 2019 and 2020, failing to win one and finishing in the top 10 just eight times.
Ko remembers when she was struggling for form and was searching for her “consistency,” adding that she was “definitely overthinking and trying to overanalyze.”
“I think before I used to not be that type of person and when you’re struggling, you’re trying to find answers and trying to dig deeper and deeper and deeper,” the 24-year-old said.
“And sometimes it’s good because you’re able to go in and kind of see from the basic, but sometimes you can over complicate it.
“And in my case, I had done that and working with Sean (Foley), he was able to clear some of the questions in my head and he’s been just as helpful, mentally and taking stuff that was unnecessarily in my mind, as well as the technique.”
She admits that during her barren streak, she wasn’t even really putting herself in contention, something Ko struggled with psychologically.
But this year Ko has enjoyed a renaissance.
She ended her winless run at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii and won a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She called the opportunity to represent New Zealand in Japan a “huge honor.”
And earlier in November, she romped to a dominant five-shot victory at the Saudi Ladies International.
The victory at the event, which boasts one of the richest prizes on the Ladies European Tour (LET) schedule — a $1 million prize fund — moves her up to fifth in the world rankings and cements herself as one of the form players in world golf.
Despite the early career success, Ko believes the 2021 season is her “most consistent” ever.
Ko says her consistency this year can be partly explained by the lessons she learned when her form dipped.
“I think there was a time where I tried to chase to be the person that I was maybe when I was playing … When I was No. 1,” she said.
“But another player told me that you can’t try and be your past, you have to be the best version of yourself in the present. And I think that really hit me.
“It kind of sounds like common sense, but when you’re actually doing it and you’re struggling, it doesn’t seem like common sense. And when she told me that, I was like: ‘Wow, that’s so true.’ And I think it just made me focus more on the now and not try and be somebody that I was before.”
Already in her eighth year on tour, Ko is not one of the junior players anymore.
Although she began the sport with the aim of retiring by the age of 30, she’s the happiest she’s been in her life “on and off the golf course,” something that’s set her up for success in the future.
“I think just being happy off the golf course, that translates being on the golf course as well,” Ko explained.
“And just how I approach playing and how I approach coming to the golf course every day, kind of the mood that I’m in. And I think at the end of the day, golf and being out here is work, but you still have to enjoy it. And the time that when you don’t enjoy it anymore, it’s not worth it.
“So yeah, it’s a grind, but I’m still having a lot of fun and enjoying it and trying to embrace more that: ‘Hey, sometimes it’s not all going to be sunny days and good days. You just still have to kind of move on and try your best.’ And as long as you try your best, that’s kind of it.”