DALY CITY, Calif. – This won’t count as Lydia Ko’s first major championship victory, but it sure felt like it should.
With Lake Merced offering a brutish test that played a lot like a U.S. Women’s Open, with a strong, deep field to beat, Ko won a war of attrition Sunday at the Swinging Skirts Classic.
She was the last woman standing with long shadows falling over a long, hard day.
While Ko won’t go into the record books as the youngest woman to win a major championship claiming this title, she had to beat the youngest woman ever to win a major. Ko defeated Morgan Pressel in a playoff with a birdie at the second hole of sudden death. Pressel became the youngest winner of a major when she took the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2007 at 18 years, 10 months and 9 days old. Pressel was trying to win her third LPGA title Sunday, her first since taking the Kapalua Classic in ’08.
Ko once more turned the 18th at Lake Merced into her personal stage, creating some terrific theater for the second year in a row. Last year, she ended this event by making birdie at the 72nd hole to beat Stacy Lewis by a shot. She set up this year’s victory by hitting a wedge to 8 feet at the final hole of regulation, then making a birdie to force the playoff. She hit a wedge to 5 feet at the same finishing hole on the second playoff hole. She won by making that last birdie chance after watching Pressel’s 10-foot chance slip left of the hole.
“It’s always a very close one here,” Ko said. “This tournament always makes my heart clench. I always get so nervous.”
It marks Ko’s first victory as a legal adult. She counts it as a belated birthday present, her first victory since turning 18 on Friday. It’s the third worldwide victory this season for the Rolex world No. 1, her second LPGA title of the year. She’s now 2-0 in playoffs in her LPGA career.
Though Ko insists she feels pressure, she looked her typically unflappable self with the intensity ratcheting up. She was chuckling good naturedly stepping to the tee to begin the playoff. She laughed and shook her head after hitting her last wedge close to set up her winning putt.
Ko was asked if she really does feel nerves.
“I do get nervous,” Ko said. “You have to take my word on that. My 17th-hole shot at Ocala definitely proves it, doesn't it? That was a pretty bad shot.”
Ko shanked a shot at Golden Ocala at the end of this year’s season opener, losing out on a chance to win there. It was a rare failure for this young star.
Pressel didn’t see any nerves in Ko on Sunday.
“She's very, very impressive, and she’s always there [in contention],” Pressel said. “At her age, she plays with so much poise and calmness that I don't think you see from other kids her age.”
Pressel caught herself with the last comment.
“I guess she's not a kid anymore, sorry,” Pressel said.
Ko started the day three shots back, then dug herself a bigger hole with a bogey-bogey start to fall four behind.
“I said `Man, this is an awful start,’” Ko said.
But she battled to the end. She felt like the long birdie putt she holed at the 15th was a difference maker. She ignited a roar dropping a birdie from 40 feet that got her within a shot of Pressel.
“I thought it was going to stop in front of the hole,” Ko said. “But it went in and definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
For Pressel, there was disappointment in the end, but she has come so far so quickly since overhauling her swing before the JTBC Founders Cup in Phoenix six weeks ago. She said she was lost with her swing on the Asian swing at season’s start, but she found a spark reuniting with swing coach Ron Stockton. She tied for third at the ANA Inspiration three weeks ago, missing out on a playoff by one shot.
“I definitely feel like there are so many positives,” Pressel said. “If you would've told me before I left Phoenix that I would finish third at ANA and then second, I don't think I would've believed you.
A shot behind at Sunday’s start, Pressel took charge early. She holed a 55-foot eagle at the sixth hole that gave her a two-shot lead. She left Lake Merced kicking herself over missed chances, including a missed 5-foot birdie putt at the fifth hole and a missed 4-foot birdie chance at the ninth that would have given her a three-shot lead going to the back nine.
“Nothing was really sharp,” Pressel said. “I definitely missed some putts that I could have made. It was a very strange day. Missed a 4-footer for birdie, make a 50-footer for eagle on the next hole, and then three-putt. I was kind of all over the place.
“But I gave myself a chance, and that's what I came here to do.”
Ko won changing her strategy at the 18th. After laying up to 108 yards at the end of regulation and then 111 yards on the first playoff hole to hit pitching wedge in, she hit a longer hybrid as her layup at the second playoff hole. She laid up to 96 yards so she could hit sand wedge, instead. She hit it so hard she couldn’t believe the divot she took and thought she might have hit it too heavy.
It was nearly a perfect shot, though, spinning to 5 feet to help her close out.
“We were both hitting the ball good, so in the end I knew it would come down to somebody making a putt,” Ko said.
Golf is getting accustomed to seeing Ko make those putts.