RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Uh-oh, Lydia Ko’s figuring out how these major championship puzzles go together now, too.
Ko didn’t walk across Poppie’s Pond after winning the ANA Inspiration on Sunday at Mission Hills, but that’s probably just so we wouldn't think she was showing off.
She’s still only 18, but Ko’s already leaving us wondering if there’s anything she won’t be able to do in the women’s game before she’s finished.
With her clutch wedge to a foot for a closing birdie that proved to be the decisive stroke, Ko claimed her second consecutive major championship. Six months after winning the Evian Championship and becoming the youngest major championship winner in the history of women’s golf, she’s now the youngest to win two of them.
At 18 years, 11 months and 10 days old, Ko is an old soul in golf. She has already won 17 professional events around the world, 12 of them LPGA titles. That’s three worldwide this year, with back-to-back titles now on the LPGA tour.
“It was always my dream just to play the LPGA, just being here, being in this position,” Ko said. “For these amazing things to be happening, it's unbelievable, but I think it also motivates me to work harder and try and put myself in good position, and in contention whenever I can.”
Jason Hamilton has toted Ko’s bag as caddie for a year and a half now. Nobody has had a better seat to witness just how historically advanced her young game has been in that time.
“She has an old head on those young shoulders,” Hamilton said. “We can’t help saying the same things, but I still struggle to get my head around her maturity.
“For someone her age to be so focused, it’s impressive. I never have to push her. She pushes herself so much, and I’m just glad she’s able to see the fruits of her labor.”
Ko didn’t make a bogey over the entire weekend, playing in contention through Saturday and Sunday with the pressure the highest. She didn’t make a bogey over the final 41 holes.
Falling behind on the back nine Sunday, Ko didn’t blink.
“I think Lydia’s patience is always the amazing thing to me,” said Sura, Lydia’s manager and older sister by nine years. “She knows how to wait for things. I don’t know how she does it, but she can wait for the magic out on the course.”
Ko patiently bided her time to make magic at the 18th.
With Ariya Jutanugarn pulling away behind her, Ko knew there was work to do late to give herself a chance. She checked a leaderboard stepping up to a nervy 8-foot putt for par at the 17th. She knew she needed to make that putt just to stay two shots behind Jutanugarn going to the final hole.
“I said, `Hey, I need to make this putt and make a birdie, or eagle, or something fantastic down the last,” Ko said.
Ko made a fantastic birdie after patiently laying up at the 18th. Yes, she flirted with the idea of trying to reach the 18th in two. She had only 202 yards to reach the front of the green after her tee shot, but her ball was sitting on a downhill lie. Still, she was thinking 3-wood, but she was thinking that without knowing Jutanugarn had made another bogey behind her.
But Hamilton knew.
“With a downhill lie like that, I knew we could lose the tournament with one shot,” Hamilton said. “I knew we were one behind and we could still win it with a birdie.”
Hamilton talked Ko out of going for the green.
After laying up to 84 yards, Ko hit the most beautiful sand wedge to a foot. She sent a jolt through the bleachers. It was all but over a few minutes later when Jutanugarn snap hooked her tee shot into the water at the 18th.
“Just after I hit my shot, I looked at the leaderboard, and I saw that we were all tied at 11 under,” Ko said. “Just so many thoughts, but, obviously, hitting it to a foot on the last hole, that makes it a lot easier than having a 3- or 4-footer. I think I'm lucky that Jason kind of talked me [into] not going for the green in two, and that definitely helped having a good yardage with a wedge.”
Hamilton called it the perfect yardage.
Ko was asked how she would rank the shot among the most clutch she has ever hit.
“I mean, it would be up there,” Ko said. “Every shot is special in its own way, like every win is special, because every tournament is so different. But, just playing the 72nd hole, birdieing the last hole, that's always a good feeling. Obviously, for that shot to mean so much that I would win the event, that makes it extra special.”
Ko’s putter was extra special all day.
More erratic than she would have liked with her ball striking, Ko kept herself alive with clutch putting. She holed a 22-foot birdie at the fifth and a 40-foot birdie at the eighth, but her clutch par saves made the difference on the back nine.
Ko’s save at the 11th was classic. She pushed her drive right into the trees, and then she punched out too hard across the fairway and back into deep rough. She chopped to 10 feet, though, and she holed her putt for par. She made a 15-footer for par at the 13th and nervy saves at the 16th and 17th holes.
Ko hit only 12 greens in regulation in the final round, the fewest she hit all week, but she got up and down for par every time.
In three previous tries at the ANA Inspiration, Ko never really looked comfortable. Her best finish was T-25, but then we forget she was 15, 16 and 17 when she played those first three times here. She’s showing now that she can adapt to any venue, major or minor.
“I think, obviously, winning this event is great, but jumping into the Poppie’s Pond, that kind of tradition will definitely be one of the highlights of my career,” Ko said. “I've never really played well at this course before, so just to know that, hey, I can still play well at a course that I haven't really played well before I think gives me the confidence.”