Lydia Ko put her youthful mark on another LPGA season.
Inbee Park made 2015 a Hall of Fame year.
While these two players continued to emerge as friendly rivals, there were plenty of other compelling storylines worth revisiting with 17-year-old Brooke Henderson winning in Portland, with Solheim Cup controversy erupting in Germany, with rookie Sei Young Kim leading yet another new wave of South Koreans, and with one of the strongest rookie classes in tour history announcing its arrival in bold terms.
“It’s been a special year for the tour,” Ko said. “It's not like the spotlight has been on two or three players. I think we've had so many multiple winners. It's been really exciting.”
Ko, Park and Cristie Kerr took the drama in 2015 to the final hole in the final event of the year with the CME Group Tour Championship, Race to the CME Globe and multiple season-long awards decided Sunday in the season’s closing scene.
“For it to come down to the last hole, last group, last putt, it's been a great season on the LPGA,” Ko said.
Ko, 18, put an exclamation point on 2015’s youth movement theme. With so much attention on how young the men’s game is becoming, the women’s is even younger.
Ko became the youngest player to reach Rolex world No. 1 in February, the youngest to win a major championship in September, the youngest to collect a 10th LPGA title in October and the youngest to win the Rolex Player of the Year Award and LPGA money title Sunday in Naples, Fla.
“I don't think she's the age she is,” said Kerr, who became the oldest winner this season claiming the CME Group Tour Championship a month after her 38th birthday. “Lydia is such an old soul. It’s hard to believe she's that young. She's been winning tournaments since she was 13 or 14 out here. What is she now, 18? I'm over twice her age. That's crazy.”
Ko’s 63 in the final round to win the Evian Championship was a masterpiece, seven shots better than anyone else among the last 18 players off on that Sunday.
Ko isn’t alone making the women’s game feel so young.
Henderson became the third youngest winner of an LPGA event when she captured the Cambia Portland Classic as a Monday qualifier a month before her 18th birthday. She joined Ko and Lexi Thompson as the only players commissioner Mike Whan has granted waivers of the LPGA’s rule requiring members to be at least 18. Henderson made a strong impression winning her tour card without going to Q-School. She played on sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifiers. She excelled on big stages, tying for fifth in a pair of majors, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open.
Rookie Minjee Lee won the Kingsmill Championship at 18.
In Gee Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open at 19.
The average age of the top 10 men in the world rankings is 32.6 years old. The average of the top 10 women is 23.5.
If Chun had claimed LPGA membership after her victory at Lancaster Country Club in July, six of the top 17 players in the Rolex women’s world rankings today would be LPGA rookies. It speaks to the strength of this year’s rookie class with rookies winning six titles.
Chun is already No. 8 in the world, and she won’t hit her first shot as an LPGA rookie until next season. That speaks to how strong the new wave of South Koreans continues to be.
Chun’s U.S. Women’s Open victory marked the sixth time in the last eight years that a South Korean won the most prestigious championship in women’s golf. Sei Young Kim won three times this season to become the fourth South Korean-born player in the last five years to win the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award. Kim’s win at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii goes down as the most spectacular finish in 2015. After hitting her approach in the water at the 72nd hole, she chipped in for par to force a playoff with Inbee Park. And then she holed an 8-iron from 154 yards for eagle to win on the first sudden-death hole.
Park, of course, continues to be the undisputed leader of the South Korean contingent. Her five victories in 2015 equaled Ko as most on tour. Park’s two major championships this season were each memorable.
At the inaugural Women’s PGA at Westchester Country Club in June, the LPGA couldn’t have asked for a better winner. The event is a rebranding of the LPGA Championship. Whan wanted the LPGA Championship’s history kept intact, so the trophy and past champions and records are all preserved as part of this new collaboration with the PGA. That’s why Park was a perfect winner. With Park in the hunt early, the large storyline became whether she could “threepeat,” whether she could join Annika Sorenstam as the only players in the 61-year history of the event to win three consecutive years. Park pulled it off. Her “threepeat” helped connect the Women’s PGA to its LPGA Championship foundation. Park also won the Ricoh Women’s British Open, celebrated by the LPGA and by Park as the completion of her career Grand Slam.
In Naples Sunday, Park, 27, secured the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, a feat made especially meaningful because it came with the one LPGA Hall of Fame point Park needed to meet the points-based requirement to qualify for induction. When Park completes her 10th season as an active player next year, she’ll fulfill all the HOF criteria and become the youngest player ever inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Brittany Lincicome took a big leap in 2015, back into Poppie’s Pond after winning the ANA Inspiration. She eagled the 72nd hole, just like she did six years ago at Mission Hills. This time, though, she had to prevail in a playoff, beating Stacy Lewis.
Count Juli Inkster as a big winner this year, too, leading the United States’ Solheim Cup team to victory in Germany in historic fashion. They overcame a 10-6 deficit Sunday, becoming the first team to come back from being four or more points behind going into Sunday singles.
The American victory resonated far and wide in great part due to the controversy that erupted over what may be remembered as the “phantom concession,” the furor that erupted Sunday morning when American Alison Lee scooped up a short putt on the 17th green saying she thought the Europeans conceded it. Suzann Pettersen alerted the rules official the putt wasn’t conceded, thrusting Pettersen into the middle of an international squabble over whether Pettersen violated the “spirit of the game” with unsportsmanlike conduct. Pettersen would end up apologizing, but not without enduring severe public backlash.
Ko, Park and Sei Young Kim weren’t the only multiple winners in 2015. Kerr, Lexi Thompson and Na Yeon Choi each won twice.
Lewis didn’t win an event for the first time in five years, but she won more money without a victory in a single season than any player in LPGA history. She won $1,893,423 thanks in great measure to six second-place finishes and three third-place finishes.
Michelle Wie was also winless, failing to follow up on her U.S. Women’s Open and Lotte Championship victories in 2014. A little sickness at year’s start, a lot of injuries in the middle of the year and a little too much tinkering with her swing through it all led to a long year without a single top-10 finish.
The season offered up a lot of promising answers as to where this tour is headed, but it ends with questions, too. Can Ko get even better? Will Park remain on a major march to more history? Is Thompson or Sei Young Kim ready to contend for No. 1? Will Lewis turn frustrating seconds into firsts? Is Henderson ready to join Ko and Thompson as the game’s best young stars?
The answers to those questions and more are about two months away from beginning to form.