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Despite injury, J.Y. Ko eyes historic finish, $1.5 million at LPGA finale

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NAPLES, Fla. – Rolex world No. 1 Jin Young Ko isn’t sure how her injured left ankle will hold up this week as she looks to finish off a historic season.

“Still a little worried,” she said Tuesday during her news conference at the CME Group Tour Championship.

A $1.5 million first-place check is up for grabs in the LPGA’s season finale. It’s the richest winner’s check in the history of women’s golf.

Ko felt pain in her ankle finishing off the first round of the Taiwan Swinging Skirts event three weeks ago, in her last start before coming to Naples. She withdrew in the middle of the third round because of the pain.

“I’m hopefully getting better,” Ko said.

Ko may need some extra strength to push the wheelbarrow full of hardware she’s lined up to win this week.

She won’t have to wait until the final putt drops Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship to begin hauling in all the awards and honors.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan got it all started Tuesday, handing Ko the trophy for most top-10 finishes this season. Her four victories, two of them major championships, were among her 12 top-10s this year.

World No. 1 Ko bothered by injured ankle

World No. 1 Ko bothered by injured ankle

CME Group Tour Championship: Full-field tee times | Full coverage

“Get used to holding trophies,” Whan told Ko. “It’s going to be a big night on Thursday.”

That’s the night of the Rolex LPGA Awards Dinner.

Ko has already won the Rolex Annika Major Award and clinched the Rolex Player of the Year Award. She’s poised to add the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and the LPGA money title. She’s looking to join Ariya Jutanugarn as the only players to sweep all those awards as the Rolex world No. 1.

“She’s a really solid player,” world No. 3 Nelly Korda said. “Amazing on the putting green. I’m always at awe with her short game.”

That appears to be the last piece Ko needed to become the best player in the women’s game.

Ko has trimmed nearly a stroke off her scoring average from last year. She won the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award last season with a 69.81 scoring average. She’s at 69.05 so far this year with a chance to join Annika Sorenstam as the only players to win the Vare Trophy for low scoring with an average better than 69 strokes for the season.

Ko is one of the best ball-strikers in the women’s game. She led the tour in hitting greens in regulation last year and leads it again this year. The big difference in her scoring average has come in her short game and putting.

After tying for 69th at the CME Group Tour Championship last year, Ko stayed in Naples determined to improve her short game, a weakness in her all-around skills. She brought in Gareth Raflewski, a short-game and putting specialist, and they worked together in a boot-camp style regimen.

“We worked together every day for two weeks,” Raflewski said.

He also works with the Jutanugarn sisters and Lydia Ko.

“We changed her putter and her setup,” Raflewski said. “Her chipping was one dimensional. She couldn’t hit it high, couldn’t spin it or bump and run it. I taught her so many different shots.”

Raflewski said the changes required some stubborn determination to master.

“At the beginning, she said, `I’m not getting this at all,’” Raflewski said. “But now, she owns all those shots. She doesn’t just have all the shots. She knows when to hit them, what to do in every situation. She’s using all of her own instincts now.”

Players competing against Ko see it.

“I’ve played with her quite a bit, and she's just overall such a great player,” Lexi Thompson said. “Very consistent, and not many weaknesses. There really isn't. Just consistent off the tee. Very straight. And her short game is unbelievable.”

It’s why Ko will walk away with all those trophies this week.

And, if her ankle holds up, possibly a $1.5 million check, too.