Lydia Ko, a teenager who is a remarkably talented athlete, who has fired the imagination of the golf world with her fluid swing and her laser-focused putts, who seemed to want nothing more than to play another round of golf, and who surely should have the right to enjoy both her teenage years and the process of developing her career as a professional golfer, is caught in a vortex of controversy not of her making. It’s about money and government agendas and parental aspirations.
Lydia Ko turned pro golfer last fall and almost immediately took home a $150K paycheck for her first professional win, the 2013 Swinging Skirts World Ladies Masters. Although Ko remains winless three months into the 2014 season, her three top-ten 2014 LPGA finishes, at the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic, the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and the JTBC Founder’s Cup, have put an additional $224K in the Ko, Inc. coffers and her victory at the LET/ALPG co-sanctioned 2014 New Zealand Open bring her pro winnings up to $400K range. Ko’s been playing golf as a professional for six months.
Do the math. She’s bringing in an average of $67K a month in winnings and as she settles in to the routine and rhythm of a Touring pro that amount will likely increase. In addition to her tournament winnings, Ko’s also receiving an undisclosed amount of money for endorsements and appearances and, like all successful professional athletes, she’s also receiving discounts and perquisites like food and lodging.
Of course there are professional expenses. Ko’s signed on with IMG to manage her pro career, she’s moved from New Zealand to Orlando, bought a house, hired a new coach and ancillary trainers.
As a teenage amateur honing her game and playing in professional events, Ko received $185K in 2012 and $185K in 2013 from High Performance Sport New Zealand. These are New Zealand taxpayer dollars. Few New Zealanders took objection to this support, generally agreeing with the editorial opinion expressed by LiveNews that public dollars could and should be used to foster the development of talented athletes and prepare them to compete on the world stage.
Ko, now fully engaged as a professional athlete on that world stage for which those tax dollars prepared her, is requesting $208K this year to pay for coaching, physiotherapy and mental skills training, and to offset tournament travel and lodging expenses for herself and her mother. Presumably, that amount of taxpayer support would supplement her projected tournament winnings of $800K or more. The controversy surrounding her request is inevitable:
Taxpayer funding should focus on fostering talent, not subsidising professionals already earning hundreds of thousands and receiving generous amounts from corporate sponsors.
Live News Editorial, April 13, 2014
Still, developing a world-class commodity is an expensive proposition and make no mistake, for the New Zealand government, the teenager is a public commodity. She’s New Zealand’s best hope for a gold medal at the 2015 Rio Olympics.
There’s a lot of work going into ensuring she’s in the best possible shape to win gold [at the Olympic Games] in Rio.
Dean Murphy, Chief Executive, New Zealand Golf
How do ordinary New Zealanders feel about continued taxpayer support for Ko? Not all are as supportive of Ko’s 2014 application for support as High Performance Sport NZ. The New Zealand Taxpayer’s Union, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has taken a critical stance:
Hiring sports people to be “ambassadors” for the country and to do various kinds of promotional work we think is fine. That’s a fee for service. But we can’t see what the taxpayer gets here. The money seems to simply support a sportswomen’s career – shouldn’t that be her own responsibility?
Lydia Ko has been asked to shoulder an unacceptably heavy burden. She’s expected to be fully prepared to bring home the gold next year, she’s expected to concentrate on each pro event and earn enough money to sustain a veritable army of trainers, coaches, and her mother qua chaperone, and she’s expected to sustain a level of mental and emotional maturity well beyond her years in a pressure cooker of competition with athletes twice her age and with twice her experience. How much can be asked of one teenage girl?