With so many young challengers coming at her this year, Lydia Ko did more than hold on to the Rolex World No. 1 ranking from year’s start to finish.
She kept a stranglehold on it.
While Ko, 19, is looking forward to some rest after a long season – she plans to take the rest of the year off – there will be some work to do in January to hold off all the young talent aiming to take the No. 1 ranking from her.
Ko’s reign atop the Rolex world rankings has reached 76 weeks, the last 57 in a row.
Even with Ariya Jutanugarn’s breakthrough charge this season, with In Gee Chun, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, Ha Na Jang, Sung Hyun Park and now maybe even Charley Hull coming for her, Ko still holds a commanding lead in the world rankings.
Even with her a swoon over the last two months, Ko ends this LPGA season with a 4.23 average world-ranking point lead on Jutanugarn, which is about the same lead No. 2 Jutanugarn holds over No. 18 Charley Hull.
It’s a testament to how consistently excellent Ko has been over the two-year rolling window used to measure performance in the Rolex rankings. In 50 worldwide starts over that span, Ko has 33 top-10 finishes, 11 of them victories.
Ko’s world rankings lead may remain strong, but her late-season form makes her look vulnerable going into the offseason.
At the start of the Asian swing in October, Ko led the Rolex Player of the Year race, the CME Globe standings, the Vare Trophy and the money-winning list.
But she didn’t walk away with any of those awards leaving CME Group Tour Championship Sunday in Naples, Fla.
“I started with a bang,” Ko said of the 2016 season. “I played really well and got my second major. Just so many highs. The Olympics was the biggest goal of mine coming into this year. I got to compete in that and become a medalist. So many dreams came true.
“It may hurt right now about what happened, but I still feel like it's been an awesome season. I'll give myself an A-plus.”
There were mental challenges after Ko won the silver medal at the Olympics in August, with her coaches seeing fatigue and perhaps a natural letdown after Rio de Janeiro. When Ko arrived for the Evian Championship in September, swing coach David Leadbetter said Ko looked like she had “nothing left in the tank.” She was also inundated that week with obligations as the defending champion and world No. 1.
There was some emotional tumult, too, late in the year, with Ko splitting with caddie Jason Hamilton after the HanaBank Championship on the Asian swing. Hamilton had been on her bag almost two full seasons. Ko plays best when she’s loose and free and comfortable in her playing bubble. She likes to talk and interact when she’s between the ropes.
Leadbetter and Sean Hogan, who also teaches Ko, began to see something else on the Asian swing.
They saw Ko’s takeaway in her swing getting flatter. She was on her own through most of the Asian swing, with her father accompanying. Hogan flew in for the HanaBank South Korean event, and he said fatigue seemed to be seeping into her swing. At the CME Group Tour Championship, it was obvious Ko had been tinkering, moving away from that more upright takeaway. Her backswing had become flatter than it was at the Olympics.
In fact, after the first round in Naples, Leadbetter showed Ko a videotape of her hole-in-one in Rio de Janeiro, specifically to show her the steeper plane on her backswing in Rio.
Leadbetter tried to coax the steeper takeaway back into her swing in Naples, and she put up that 62 in the second round, though her backswing still didn’t look as steep as what she took to the Olympics.
“Essentially, she had been drifting away from some basics,” Leadbetter said. “It happens to players. They aren’t playing as well as they like, and they start trying different things. Her plane had gotten a little flat.”
It’s something Leadbetter, Hogan and Ko are sure to be addressing in the offseason, because Ko’s iron play wasn’t sharp ending the year.
“That’s the thing that’s been lacking,” Leadbetter said. “Her iron play is her bread and butter.”
Ko hit 50 greens in regulation for the week in Naples. So Yeon Ryu, whom Ko played with in Saturday’s round, hit 60 greens on the week. In Gee Chun, who beat out Ko for the Vare Trophy in a head-to-head duel on Sunday, hit 57 greens.
Ko dropped to 31st in hitting greens in regulation this year. She was second last year, seventh as a rookie.
For now, though, Ko is looking forward to re-charging her batteries with some R&R. She’ll need it with so many young stars looking to see if they can end her long run at No. 1.
“I am planning not to touch my clubs, or look at them for the next month,” Ko said leaving Naples on Sunday. “I've looked at them for the last 11 months. I think they're sick of me, too. I say this, but I don't know what I would do without golf. That's how much I like it. But I think a little bit of time off is going to be fun.”
That huge lead she has built in the Rolex rankings should give her comfort as she rests and regroups through the offseason.