OCALA, Fla. – Lydia Ko might not actually be the youngest No. 1 in the history of men’s or women’s professional golf with the release of the newest Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Sure, her birth certificate may say she is 17 years, 9 months and 9 days old when she officially ascends to No. 1 on Monday, but the back nine at the Coates Golf Championship must have aged her 10 years.
It had to age Na Yeon Choi and she took home the winner’s trophy.
In a wild, nerve-racking finish to the LPGA’s season opener, Choi and Ko both went home winners, but not without passing through trials and tribulations that should have left them both plucking premature gray hairs.
After watching Ko birdie the first two holes Saturday to build a four-shot lead at Golden Ocala, Choi fought back to win, prevailing after Ko shanked a shot into the woods at the 17th hole, then skulled a wedge over the 18th green trying to get up-and-down to sneak into a playoff.
While Choi took home the $225,000 winner’s check, Ko took home a historic consolation prize. With her three-way tie for second, Ko secured enough world ranking points to overtake Inbee Park as the newest No. 1 in the Rolex rankings.
Ko beats the mark of Tiger Woods, rising to the top of the rankings 3 years, 8 months and 14 days younger than Woods was when he became No. 1. Woods was 21 years, 5 months and 16 days old in 1997 when he reached the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Jiyai Shin was the previous youngest No. 1 in women’s golf at 22 years and 5 days old when she got there in 2010.
In the end, Ko would have preferred taking home her sixth LPGA title.
“It’s a little disappointing,” Ko said.
Ko said she didn’t realize anything less than a win would get her to No. 1 until her mother, Tina, and her agent, Michael Yim, told her after she signed her scorecard.
“I didn’t win at the end of the day, but I still became No. 1 and that’s pretty awesome,” Ko said.
While a lot of 17-year-olds, and pros a lot older than that, might have been devastated losing the way Ko did, she met the media afterward with poise and grace that belies her youth.
“I always joke that we have to send her to anger management classes, so she can learn to get angry,” David Leadbetter, her swing coach, said afterward.
By the time Ko walked out of the scoring tent, you couldn’t tell if she won or lost this thriller.
“She has an amazing temperament for the game,” Leadbetter said. “She’s just 17, but she walks on this cloud. She doesn’t get overly excited. She doesn’t get overly down.”
Leadbetter believes that same temperament will help Ko deal with all the extra pressure that comes with the top ranking. Standing behind the 18th green in the aftermath, Ko’s mother was asked what she thought of her daughter reaching such lofty status at such a tender age.
“She’s too young,” Tina said. “You just worry about what she feels.”
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. It’s a saying that the world’s best players can understand. The onerous weight of the No. 1 ranking was something Yani Tseng struggled with. She has spoken openly about it leading to her swoon after 109 weeks at No. 1.
Leadbetter is there with reassurance for Tina if she needs it.
“She is more worried about it than Lydia is,” Leadbetter said. “Lydia just takes it in stride. It’s not really a big deal to her.
“It’s like when she won CME last year. It was `Ho-hum, a $1.5 million.’ It’s the same way with this. I don’t think the No. 1 mantle is going to affect her at all. She could be there for a while. Although with a lot players right there at the top now, the No. 1 ranking could flip flop for a little bit, but Lydia will be right there. It’s just incredible to think she’s there at 17.”
Jason Hamilton, Ko’s caddie, loved the way Ko took Saturday’s loss in stride, the poise he saw after.
“It’s fantastic,” Hamilton said. “I’m glad you can’t bottle it. It’s one of the qualities that makes Lydia unique.”
Hamilton, by the way, was Tseng’s caddie through Tseng’s rise and fall.
Ko’s head had to be spinning when she signed her scorecard, so much changed so quickly on that back nine. She took a one-shot lead to the 17th tee before blocking her tee shot into a right fairway bunker. From there, she shanked a shot right, into the trees.
Ko said her driver got stuck behind her there, same with the 5-hybrid she half-blocked and half-shanked into the woods, leading to a double bogey. It could have been worse. She holed an 18-footer to avoid a triple bogey. Ultimately, that putt might have given her the points needed to get to No. 1 in the world.
Ko’s misses on the back nine seemed related to misses on the front. Earlier in the round, Ko pull-hooked a tee shot at No. 8 off a tree. She pulled her next shot, hooking it into a greenside bunker, leading to a bogey. At the 15th hole, she pulled a 7-iron wide left of the pin before recovering with a brilliant 60-foot birdie putt there.
“My miss is both right and left,” Ko said. “It’s just my club being a little late behind my body. It creates shots left and right.”
Ko said the same thing happened with her 5-hybrid that went into the woods. Hamilton said the sand was a factor.
“She lost her balance and footing,” he said.
At the 18th, needing to get up and down for birdie from left of the green to force a playoff, Ko skulled a chip over the green. Hamilton said it was a bit of a downhill lie, from a fairly tight lie, and she was trying to hit a flop with a 60-degree wedge that she had to hit precisely.
“I was just so eager,” Ko said. “I just kind of lifted up on it.”
Afterward, Ko wasn’t interested on dwelling long on Saturday’s finish or even a future as No. 1.
“It was my goal to one day be No. 1, but right now, I didn’t expect that,” Ko said. “Everything just hits me by surprise. Like that double at 17. That hit me by surprise, and a lot of good things, too . . . I didn’t win at the end of the day, but I still became world No. 1. That’s pretty awesome.”