Lydia Ko, the youngest golfer to win an LPGA event, faces scrutiny back home in New Zealand about some $200,000 in government subsides she reportedly continues to receive despite having earned more than that since she turned professional last October.
On behalf of the tour rookie, who is tied for 18th at even-par after Wednesday’s opening round of the LPGA Lotte Championship in Hawaii, the Kiwi counterpart to the USGA, New Zealand Golf, requested $208,000 in taxpayer funds from High Performance Sport New Zealand to help Ko get golf-ready for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The organization made its request, which covers a two-year period, in 2012, before Ko turned pro. The money, according to reports, would pay for the 16-year-old’s coaching, physiotherapy, mental-skills training, travel, and lodging for her and her mother.
HPS New Zealand, which distributes government grants to the country’s top athletes, reportedly has a budget of some $60 million.
News of the Ko application sparked numerous editorials in publications throughout Ko’s adopted country decrying the use of taxpayer dollars to underwrite a golfer many believe has the capacity to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements as well as from her on-course skills.
While NZ Golf along with HPS sought to quell the ruckus by noting that the golf governing body requested the funding on behalf of Ko when she was a 15-year-old amateur, the backlash had eroded the confidence of the fourth-ranked player in the world, according NZ Golf chief executive Dean Murphy.
"She's really worried about it," Murphy told Newstalk ZB on Sunday, ahead of Ko’s start in Hawaii. "Her management team certainly are really worried about it and she's got an event to play next week and right now she's wondering what media questions are going to be asked of her and if she's going to continue to get this abuse while she's trying to be focused on playing."
Ko has had an up-and-down launch to her pro career. In addition to five top-20 finishes in seven starts in her rookie campaign, Ko was blasted last year by Tiger Woods ex-caddy and New Zealand native Steve Williams for firing her long-time coach Guy Wilson. The youngster has also played musical chairs with her caddies, as she began the week with Steve Kay, her third bagman in her short professional career.
Ko knocked newly crowned Kraft Nabisco champion Lexi Thompson out of the record books when, in 2012, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event. She defended her Women’s Canadian Open title in 2013 and waged a successful petitioning campaign to join the tour.
Shortly after signing with IMG, Ko announced her first endorsement contract with Callaway, which a company spokesperson termed a "highly lucrative deal."
Ko reportedly received $115,000 from New Zealand Golf in 2012, when she was still an amateur, and $185,000 last year, according to reports. She has made $224,000 in six events on the LPGA Tour and another reported $30,000 for placing second in the New Zealand Women’s Open in the 2014 season, and has yet to learn what type of support she may receive from NZ Golf for this year.
NZ Golf has defended its application for financial backing for Ko by claiming she needed support to ensure "she’s in the best possible shape to win golf in Rio," and HPS chief executive Alex Baumann concurred.
"We target our investment at sports and athletes that have potential to win at Olympic Games, Paralympic Games and world championships for non-Olympic Sports," Baumann told the National Business Review last week.
"As we have said publicly before, it’s likely that Lydia’s earnings as a professional will mean that she no longer needs our financial support and we’re continuing to talk to New Zealand Golf about that," Baumann added. "There may be other support we can provide to Lydia such as help from our specialist staff to assist her through to the Olympics."
The Taxpayer’s Union strongly argued that Ko should receive no more government funds.
"Golf is one of the richest sports in the world," the union’s executive director Jordan Williams told NBR. "Why should Kiwi taxpayers, most of whom earn less than Ms Ko, subsidize someone earning hundreds of thousands? So far this year Ms Ko has collected more than $280,000, not including sponsorship money. Surely it’s enough for Ms Ko to refrain from seeking taxpayer-funded welfare."
Ko is paired in the first two rounds this week with Cristie Kerr and Lizette Salas.