How Jin Young Ko turned a tense LPGA season finale into a career-defining win


NAPLES, Fla. — The setup for the final-round showdown at the CME Group Tour Championship was too good to be true. Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko and Celine Boutier, winners of the previous six tournaments on the LPGA Tour heading into the 2021 season finale, were all tied for the lead along with Nasa Hataoka, herself a two-time champ in 2021. The final threesome of Korda, Ko and Hataoka had 10 wins combined in the current calendar year.

Yet for the fifth time in her last nine starts, one star shinned brightest. With a bogey-free 63, Ko rose above the fray at Tiburon Golf Club, closing out the championship by hitting all 18 greens to finish a remarkable run of 63 straight greens in regulation. While Hataoka tried to keep up, shooting an impressive 64, it was one shot too many as Ko, with a 23-under 265, defended her CME title, claimed the $1.5 million winner’s check and secured the Rolex Player of the Year Award.

As the 26-year-old South Korean capped a fantastic year on the golf course, she noted that it was one dimmed by the passing of her grandmother earlier in the year, a personal trauma that caused her to question if she would ever be in the winner’s circle again.

“I was really sad early of the year,” Ko said. “And then I … I couldn’t think I can be win again.”

The amazing part of her impressive play was the fact that it came while Ko was also suffering through pain in her left wrist. It returned this week in Florida and was so strong that during Thursday’s first round, Ko’s caddie, David Brooker, asked her if she wanted to withdraw.

Ko pushed through, taking medicine and spending 30 minutes each day with the physio. Afterward, she went through a limited warmup, putting and hitting no more than 52-degree wedges before ultimately heading to the first tee.

“First hole, the fairway is really narrow from the tee shot,” Ko said. “So I had a lot of pressure.”

Ko’s pressure was relieved by a 50-minute phone call with her mother on Saturday night, where Mom impressed upon Ko that no matter what happens, she has a Christmas vacation coming up. Instead of worrying about what would happen Sunday, she encouraged Ko to enjoy playing with Korda and Hataoka.

Korda, too, felt relatively relaxed, all things considered, at the start of play although the 23-year-old was certainly aware of the stakes after their opening tee shots. Beyond just trying to win the tournament, Korda knew if she could finish ahead of Ko at day’s end that the Player of the Year honor would be hers, starting the week with a 10-point edge in the season-long points race. It would be a fitting conclusion to a season in which Korda had won her first major title and became the first American to ascend to World No. 1 since Stacy Lewis in 2014.

After finding the fairway and outdriving her group mates by 20 yards, Korda dabbed for the cameramen and joked, “Are you ready for it?”

Turns out, Korda was foreshadowing Ko’s closing dominance. Ko birdied the first and shot a front-nine 30 that left her co-leaders struggling to keep up. Korda finished the day with a three-under 69, a solid if unspectacular round that left her six strokes back of Ko.

“Honestly, it was definitely the ‘Jin Young Ko Show’ today,” Korda said. “It was really cool to witness. Obviously, I wish I could have kind of given it a better run.”

Beside her usual impressive ball-striking, Ko had her putter working in Florida. The first signs of that came when she made seven-straight birdies early in her third round on Saturday en route to a 66.

“My putting feel was really good since yesterday,” Ko said.

Ko noted three key moments during her Sunday 63 that stood out. The first came on the third hole, when Ko hit a 7-iron to six feet. It set up a birdie that allowed her to match Hataoka at 16 under par, which became important when one hole later Ko made a 10-footer for birdie to take the solo lead.

Ko’s second turning-point moment was her approach on the eighth, when she knocked her ball pin high to five feet with a controlled 9-iron. She converted the putt for her fifth birdie of the day and was now three shots clear of the field.

But arguably the biggest moment was on the par-5 17th. Ko had gone three holes without a birdie, and Hataoka was back within two shots. That’s when Ko hit a 6-iron on the green in two, setting up a two-putt birdie to maintain a two-stroke lead going to the last hole.

Hataoka birdied the 18th to cut Ko’s final margin to one, but only after Ko was in tap-in range for par and the title. Over last 28 holes at Tiburon, Hataoka birdied 17.

“There were few times where there was a lot of pressure,” she said. “But I was able to think simple, which helped me a lot today.”

Ko’s win added another set of accolades to an LPGA résumé that’s growth rather long in just four seasons of play. Ko made it three straight years topping the money list (with $3,502,161), her second player of the year award in the last three seasons, her 12th tour victory, and 17th LPGA Hall of Fame point (she’ll need 27 to earn a spot). She now holds the longest active streak of consecutive seasons with a win, dating back to 2017, taking the mantle from Sei Young Kim’s six-year stretch from 2015 to 2020.

Perspective on her accomplishments will come with reflection, as Ko instead imagined how happy her grandmother would be for her after bounding into the media center to the tune of “All I Do is Win” being played by an LPGA media official before heading home.

“I think,” Ko said, “she would be crying.”

Tears, no doubt, of pride in what all her granddaughter had accomplished.

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