NAPLES, Fla. – They don’t swing the club the same way, but they play the game so similarly.
Lydia Ko and Inbee Park are chess masters who aren’t just plotting their way around a golf course this week. They’re plotting to get in position Sunday to win the load of large awards and prizes that are making the CME Group Tour Championship almost feel like a major championship.
“The most scary thing about Lydia is she’s so similar to me,” Park said at week’s start. “I can’t really see that much difference with me. I don't know what her plan is and what she's thinking, but it's almost the same as me. That’s the most scary thing about her.”
The difference in Thursday’s first round? Ko’s putter was hotter.
Ko opened with a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for ninth, three shots behind Austin Ernst. Park opened with a 71.
While Ernst is playing for the $500,000 first-place check, Ko and Park are playing for that and so much more. They’re playing for the Race to the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot, the Rolex world No. 1 ranking, the Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and the money-winning title.
For Ko and Park, the point projections for all those different prizes could be dizzying if they allowed themselves to dwell on them.
“If you think about it, there might be more on the line this week than at Evian,” said Ko, who won the Evian Championship for her first major in September. “I’ve got to focus on one shot at a time and not think of it as a major.”
For Park, there’s yet another prize within reach as she’s just one point away from meeting the 27-point requirement to make the LPGA Hall of Fame. Park can meet that with a victory or by winning the Rolex Player of the Year Award or the Vare Trophy. They’re each worth one Hall of Fame point.
“I don’t know how they are sleeping at night, to be honest with you,” said Brittany Lincicome, a two-time major championship winner. “To have so many different prizes on the line, I don't think I would sleep. I would be so nervous.”
Both Ko and Park slipped a spot in the standings in their bid to win the Race to the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot. Sei Young Kim’s 68 moved her into first place in projected CME points. Ko dropped to second and Park to third.
“I’m very excited,” said Kim, the LPGA’s Rolex Rookie of the Year. “It’s my dream. It’s come almost true. I try not to think about it on the course. It’s step by step.”
Ko played alongside Park and Stacy Lewis in the first round. They started the day 1-2-3, respectively, in CME points. Lewis opened with a 72 and now sits fourth in CME points.
“I’ve got to hit the ball better,” Lewis said. “Not really think about the lead, just play better golf.”
Ko gained the advantage on Park Thursday by holing putts. She needed 27 putts to Park’s 31.
“I hit a lot of greens and fairways, just couldn’t putt,” Park said. “These Bermuda greens got me again. I haven’t putted that well on Bermuda greens.”
Park rebounded from trouble early. She hooked her approach at the first hole into the water and made bogey.
“Just got off to a sluggish start,” she said.
The field will be re-grouped Friday based on first-round scores, meaning Park and Ko won’t be playing side by side again. The tension promises to mount as Sunday gets closer and projections and calculations for the CME Globe and other prizes become more meaningful.
“We've got the world's best golfer and the top players here,” Ko said. “It’s a great field, so in a way it does feel like a major. With everything that might come along on Sunday, might be even more than that. I’ve just got to say, `Hey, hit good shots.’”