By Jeff Babineau
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Winning once was a habit for Lydia Ko, who started collecting LPGA trophies at the age of 15. But then she struggled with her game, her confidence waned, and only in the past few years has she been able to get to the other side of a pretty thorough rebuild.
Sunday at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, there was a calmness and sense of peace about Ko, who started the day with a two-shot cushion over her friend, Danielle Kang. On a beautiful, sun-splashed Sunday, Kang kept the pressure on, and Ko never failed to have an answer.
A nice par save from the greenside bunker at the tough 18th hole would lift Ko to a final-round 69 and one-shot victory, the 17th of her career. Ko finished at 14-under 274. Kang shot 68 and had a chance at the end, but a 20-foot putt down the hill to tie started left and stayed there. She fell a shot short in trying to become only the second player since 1966 to win the LPGA’s first two events of the season.
Ko, 24, who was born in South Korea but plays under the flag of New Zealand – for whom she collected medals in each of the last two Olympic Games – has come to the realization that golf is not a perfect game. There will be bad swings and missed putts. It’s more about the fight, about dealing with what you have in your arsenal on any given day, and about finding a way.
Her coach, Sean Foley, had an inspiring message for her on the morning of the final round: “Every day, every shot, you have a chance and a choice.” By that, he explained later, you have a chance to do something incredible, and a choice to deal with the success – or failure – of each shot.
Ko chose to do something incredible. She had been near the top of the leaderboard at Boca Rio Golf Club since the opening round, as she birdied half the holes in a 9-under 63. Temperatures cooled on the weekend, and a strong breeze kicked up in Saturday’s third round, which presented a completely different challenge.
Sunday’s final round was friendlier to scoring, though Ko and Kang spent much of the early portion of the round trading pars. Ko was even par on the day through 10, Kang two shots better. Both players birdied the 11thhole, and Kang tacked on a birdie at 12 to take the lead at 13 under. It was short-lived, as she made bogey at the par-3 13th, missing the green right.
At the par-4 15th came the difference-maker. Kang hit a terrific shot inside 10 feet, and seemed to have the advantage. Ko was 25 feet away after her second shot, and faced a slick, downhill, right-to-left curler. She stepped up and rolled it in, Kang missed from 7 feet, Ko led, and Ko would protect the one-shot edge all the way to the clubhouse.
Ko made a nice scrambling par on the final hole from a short-side bunker, and Kang could not coax her 20-footer to fall. Ko, who’d blasted her third shot to about a foot from the hole, was expecting her friend to make the putt, and expecting to go extra holes, but when her putt stayed out, another trophy was Ko’s.
“I think holing that putt on 15 was kind of the momentum-shifter for me,” Ko said. “That wasn’t the easiest putt. I kept turning more and more right (as she aligned herself) because it looked like it was a swinging putt, and ended up being the perfect read.”
Kang, coming off a victory in the LPGA’s season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, was impressed with how Ko handed the pressure of the downstretch. Beyond her solid play – she made only one bogey all day – it was Ko’s demeanor that resonated with her.
“You have to be able to hit good putts, and she hit a phenomenal putt on that hole,” Kang said of Ko’s decisive birdie at 15. “It breaks about three feet on that green.
“Even my 7-footer (at the same hole) broke more than three cups and I was still low … so those kind of things, I was very impressed by. And I loved how calm she stayed throughout the round. Even on the last hole she was going through a little bit of trouble, but she stayed in there.”
Yuka Saso, the U.S. Women’s Open champion, shot 67 and finished third. Charley Hull (68) and Celine Boutier (69) tied for fourth.
Ko got one point closer to earning her way into the LPGA Hall of Fame – a definite goal – and continues to learn about herself, and her game. She was sitting next to a beautiful trophy, realizing that though there was a great amount of good in her week, it wasn’t perfect.
“I think sometimes I try and become too much of a perfectionist,” she said. “I’m just trying to play golf and not control everything out there.”
For four days, her best had been better than anyone’s. For Lydia Ko, it had to feel like old times.