NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko practically owns this week.
Since she turned pro, Ko has treated the final week of the LPGA season like it’s a drive-through ATM window.
She won both the CME Group Tour Championship ($500,000) and the Race to the CME Globe ($1 million) in her rookie year in 2014, claiming the richest payday in the history of women’s golf. She took home more than the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot again last year. She also took home the Rolex Player of the Year Award, becoming its youngest winner at 18 years old.
Of course, Ko is too humble to think of any event as an ATM, but she has made more in this one event than Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth made her entire career ($1,722,760).
Ko, though, isn’t arriving this week feeling the kind of momentum she enjoyed the last two years.
In fact, Ko confessed she’s feeling a bit off.
“Obviously, I'm not coming into this week with the greatest form,” Ko said. “But I still feel like it's been a season where I'm really proud of it.”
Ko has won four LPGA titles this year and the Olympic silver medal, but she’s in a real battle this week for the coveted year-long prizes. Ariya Jutanugarn leads Ko in the Race to the CME Globe standings, Rolex Player of the Year points and money winnings.
“I'm in a bit of a different position to last year,” Ko said. “I'm not really in the driver's seat.”
Ko has to win the CME Group Tour Championship to claim her second Rolex Player of the Year Award in as many years. Jutanugarn wins the award as long as Ko doesn’t win this tournament.
With a tour-best five LPGA titles this year, Jutanugarn is looking to take her turn at the LPGA’s richest ATM.
“This year has been a great year for me already,” Jutanugarn said.
Earlier this week, Jutanugarn posed with Ko and Brooke Henderson over $1 million in cash encased in a glass cube.
“Everybody wants that,” Jutanugarn said.
Yes, but Jutanugarn wants that Rolex Player of the Year Award more.
“To me, I think it’s one of the hardest to win,” she said.
Ko, Jutanugarn and Henderson are grouped together in the first round.
While Jutanugarn has more victories this year, Ko has the edge when they’re both contending late on Sunday for a title. Ko birdied the last hole to beat Jutanugarn in the season-opening ANA Inspiration. Ko also beat Jutanugarn head-to-head in a playoff at the Marathon Classic.
But in the three rounds they’ve been paired together this year, Jutanugarn has posted the low round all three times.
While Ko’s been battling a sluggish end to her year, she’s still in position for a huge finish. She can still sweep all the big prizes this week. If she wins the CME Group Tour Championship, she’ll also win the Player of the Year Award, the CME Globe jackpot, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and the money-winning title.
Mostly, Ko said, she wants to win back her best form.
“For me, it's more important to have a strong finish to the season,” she said. “That's what I'm mainly thinking about.”
Ko hasn’t had a top-10 finish in her last five starts. While that’s no cause for alarm for most players, it’s a departure for Ko. Remarkably, until now, she had not gone five LPGA starts without a top 10 since she began playing the tour as a 15-year-old amateur.
“It’s the first time in her short career she’s sort of gone off form,” said David Leadbetter, her swing coach. “It’s sort of coincided with the fact that she put her heart and soul into the Olympics.”
Leadbetter thinks Ko has battled fatigue in this stretch run to the finish line.
“At Evian, I thought, this girl looks spent,” Leadbetter said. “She looked like she had nothing in the tank. She really hasn’t got that momentum back yet.”
Jutanugarn is looking to end her breakthrough season with an exclamation point.
A little more than a year removed from missing 10 consecutive cuts, seven months removed from collapsing in the final round of the year’s first major, Jutanugarn counts this week as frosting.
“No matter what’s going to happen, I’m really happy about it,” Jutanugarn said.
Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott began working with Jutanugarn in March, and they relish seeing how far she has come.
“Her confidence was so low back in March,” Nilsson said. “She was afraid of playing, afraid of her driver.
“But she had it all right there under her skin. If there are a thousand pieces of the puzzle to being a great player, she had most of the pieces already in place.”
Nilsson and Marriott gave Jutanugarn a game-changing pre-shot routine. A little pre-shot smile, a “trigger” to remind her to slow down, calm down and focus when the pressure mounted, proved transforming. Swing coach Gary Gilchrist honed the loose, moving parts of Jutanugarn’s swing.
“It’s already been a monster year for her,” Marriott said. “And it all happened so fast.”