NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko saved her strong start to the CME Group Tour Championship Thursday with a terrific final shot.
It moved her into early position to try to save this season, to keep it from becoming the first winless year of her young career.
Ko holed out from the bunker at the 18th hole to save par, sending a jolt through the gallery in the grandstand behind her.
“I don’t think I’ve made a par like that before,” Ko said.
With a 5-under-par 67, Ko is one shot behind Taiwan rookie Peiyun Chien and Australia’s Sarah Jane Smith, both of whom are looking for their first LPGA victories.
Ko is in some strong company tied for second.
Sung Hyun Park, looking to sweep every major award available this week, also opened with a 67, as did Suzann Pettersen, Azahara Munoz and Karine Icher.
Ariya Jutanugarn opened with a 68.
Lexi Thompson, who leads the CME Globe standings in the season-long race for a $1 million jackpot, opened with a 71.
Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng, looking to win her third consecutive event, shot 70.
Ko has already won 14 LPGA titles in her young career, but none this season, none since making the year’s start with sweeping changes, from a new coach and equipment to a new caddie and putting stroke.
“I want to finish this season on a high note,” Ko said.
Ko, 20, struggled through a rough summer, given the high bar she set as one of the game’s greatest teen phenoms. She won five times around the world last year, six times around the world the year before. She has won an LPGA title every year since she was 15 years old.
“I can’t imagine she doesn’t lay her head on the pillow at night and think, 'What happened? Where did I go,'” LPGA Hall of Famer and Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin said. “I think part of it is just growing up. Part of it - it’s sad to say - but in golf and maybe all the through life, you come to that point where you’ve grown up just enough to know things can go wrong, and then [they] begin to.”
Ko’s changing of her equipment and swing at the same time appeared to challenge the nature of the way she has always played. Dialing in new yardages with her new PXG clubs, working into a new swing after leaving David Leadbetter last year, left her thinking more about the way she played than ever before.
“Lydia has never been analytical about any part of her game,” Gilchrist told GolfChannel.com at the start of fall. “She is probably the most natural player, who just used her feel and went out and played with it. I think the biggest thing for her is to go out again and just play without thinking too much.”
Ko, who has slipped to No. 8 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, seems to be getting back to that. She’s coming off a T-5 finish at the Toto Classic in Japan. She has two second-place finishes and a third since the start of September.
“I played pretty solid at the start of the year and had a pretty frustrating few months in the middle of my season,” Ko said.
A second-place finish at the Indy Women in Tech Champion the first week of September was a big confidence builder, Ko said.
“Obviously, I wasn’t the one holding the trophy at the end of that week, but just getting that second-place finish gave me confidence at Evian,” Ko said. “That was my best finish in my majors this year.”
Ko had a chance to win going to the 72nd hole at Evian, missing out on a playoff by a shot after closing with a bogey in the rain.
“It is good to be able to play some solid golf these past few weeks, and put myself in better positions going into the weekends and going into the final round,” Ko said. “I think the more I do that, the confidence kind of builds up. Golf is such a confidence game. If you start making birdies or putts and playing well, it builds up. That momentum kind of carries on.”
Ko finished strong Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club. She birdied the 13th, 14th and eagled the 17th, hitting a 3-wood to 15 feet.
With a misfire over the back of the final green, Ko looked as if she might throw away some of that good work. She skulled her pitch over the green and into a bunker, but that’s where she saved the round.
After holing out, she thrust both arms in the air.
“It’s definitely nice to be able to please the crowd,” Ko said.
She would relish pleasing them again come Sunday.