RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lydia Ko can make the game look like child’s play, but there was nothing easy about the way the 17-year-old phenom reached a historical mark Thursday at the ANA Inspiration.
All that giggling coming from Ko near the end of the round belied just how tough the day was.
Ko had to fight her way to a 1-under-par 71 to equal Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam’s mark of 29 consecutive rounds under par.
The LPGA says it’s the longest streak dating back to 1992, which is as far back as detailed LPGA tournament records go.
Ko battled blustery, early morning winds. She battled out of more ankle-deep rough than she’s used to playing through. She even battled her swing, too, and somehow still reached the mark.
It was all daunting enough to keep Ko from thinking about anything beyond the shots at hand.
“A record was the last thing I was thinking about,” Ko said.
You saw just how maddening the battle was becoming for Ko after she clumsily pitched a shot off a tree and made bogey at her ninth hole of the day.
Ko turned in exasperation leaving that hole and chucked her golf ball into the water behind Poppie’s Pond.
Rarely does Ko let emotion like that escape for everyone to see, but it was her fourth bogey over six holes.
“I really wasn’t hitting my driver well,” Ko said.
Ko played the first nine in 1 over despite making three birdies.
“What impresses me most is her ability to grind out a good score when she isn’t having a good day,” said Jason Hamilton, Ko’s caddie. “She had her B game today.”
Hamilton was on Ko’s bag for all 29 sub-par rounds. He picked up her bag full time late last fall in Asia. He saw this kind of fight more than once in that streak.
“Even when she has an off day, she still finds a way to post a decent number,” Hamilton said.
Ko said she regrouped at her 10th hole, at the No. 1 tee box. That’s where she pulled out a note her swing coach, David Leadbetter, gave her before the round.
“I don’t want to say exactly what it was,” Leadbetter said. “I told her it was a little psychobabble, just a little something meant to be inspirational. There has been so much talk about her breaking records, you can get really consumed by it, so it was just something to release a little of the pressure, to get her mind off it all.”
Whatever it was, Ko said it helped.
In the end, Ko’s giggling belied just how much the day challenged her. She practically laughed her way through the last two holes with banter between playing partner Lexi Thompson and their caddies leaving her in stitches.
Ko played the back nine in 2 under par, though it was dramatic to the finish.
At her 16th hole, where she was even par for the day, Ko hooked her tee shot behind a stand of trees. She fought a pull hook all day. That’s been her miss of late. From 160 yards out, Ko didn’t have a clear shot at the green. Hamilton told her she didn’t have to get too creative with the shot.
“Look, you don’t have to work it back on to the green,” Hamilton recounted telling her. “If you make it into the bunker up there, you can still make par.”
With a 6-iron, from the rough behind those trees, Ko did better than that. She hit a low hook that curved sharply around the trees, nipping some leaves before running up onto the green, where she was left with a 25-foot birdie putt. She two putted for par.
“That was awesome,” Hamilton said. “She couldn’t have played the shot better if she had a bucket of balls.”
At her 17th hole, Ko sealed the deal. She hit another beautiful 6-iron, this one a pretty, pure draw left of the flag. The ball fed down a slope to 18 inches of the cup. She made an easy birdie to get to red numbers.
If there was any stress building up, it drained away walking to that shot. Ko laughed uncontrollably exchanging banter with Thompson, with Hamilton and with Thompson’s caddie, Benji Thompson (no relation).
“Benji’s a real ham,” Hamilton said. “He and I were talking about how badly we were doing as their caddies, how badly we were reading the greens. I think Benji said, `Yeah, we suck today.’”
The remark set Ko off on a hard belly laugh walking to her last birdie putt. She made an easy par coming home to close out the day.
“Lydia has a great personality, and we definitely stay loose out there,” said Thompson, the defending champion, who shot 72, a solid start.
Thompson was as impressed as everyone else watching Ko match Sorenstam’s mark.
“Lydia might have been a little bit off today, but she has an amazing short game and hit some incredible shots,” Thompson said. “It doesn't surprise me she shot under par again.”
Ko will be looking to do it again Friday to surpass Sorenstam’s mark.
“Annika Sorenstam is legendary,” Ko said.
Ko seems intent on working her way to that lofty status, too.