NAPLES, Fla. – After a resurgent year, Lydia Ko deservedly finds herself in the premier grouping as this LPGA season winds down at Tiburon Golf Club. Ko will tee it up alongside world Nos. 1 and 2, Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko, in the first round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
But in Lydia’s mind, she doesn’t feel like she’s anywhere close to the spotlight entering the tour’s limited-field finale.
“I told my mom, I was like, I'm going to be like third-wheeling with the two,” said Lydia, who was a distant third to the pair of four-time winners in the Race to the CME Globe. “I might be third, but I feel like I'm 100 compared to them. … I feel like there is a little less pressure on me because like they have the Player of the Year [battle] and they're so close in everything that I was like, OK, I'm going to be like spectating while playing tomorrow.”
Lydia, of course, is being modest. No, she hasn’t won at the healthy clip of Korda or Jin Young, but she did win – and one could argue that no non-major victory on the LPGA this season meant more than Lydia’s drought-ender at the Lotte Championship last April in Hawaii.
Before snapping her winless streak, Lydia was mired in a lengthy slump that spanned 1,084 days, or more than three years. As a teenager, Lydia was a world-beater, winning 14 times on the LPGA, her first at an LPGA-record 15 years old, and ascending to No. 1 in the world by age 17, better than any professional golfer, male or female, ever. But in recent years, this often-cruel game had turned the tables on its young superstar, as Lydia dropped outside the top 50 in the world last August on the heels of a 2019 in which she finished outside the top 20 in 11 straight events to close the year.
During her lowest moments, Lydia, admittedly, began to wonder if she’d ever lift another trophy.
“If I said, no, I didn't doubt myself at all, that would be a lie,” she said earlier this year.
That’s why winning the Lotte was so critical. Two weeks prior, Lydia had closed the ANA Inspiration in 62 to notch her second runner-up finish of the young season, but nothing replaces winning.
“Hawaii was more proving to myself that, hey, I can be back in the winner's circle,” Lydia said. “Even if you come second like five times, that's great and you know that your game is there, but to take it to the next step, I feel like it's giving that reassurance to yourself. I think that was a huge thing for me.”
Lydia parlayed the win into seven more top-11 finishes, giving her 11 total on the year (and that doesn’t even include her Olympic bronze medal or Ladies European Tour victory in Saudi Arabia earlier this month). Though her overall major record this season wasn’t earth-shattering, she’s gained serious momentum heading into the CME, having finished in the top 3 in each of her last two starts, including last week’s playoff loss at the Pelican Women’s Championship.
She also leads the Vare Trophy race, which goes to the player with the lowest scoring average in a single season. Lydia is actually third in that stat, but she’s first among eligible players. Winning the Vare would bump her up to 20 LPGA Hall of Fame points; 27 points and 10 years played earn one entry into the prestigious club.
“I think it's been a meaningful season for me on and off the golf course,” Lydia said. “It's been a season like within my game, I probably played some of the most consistent golf I have in my whole career. Obviously, that's a great state to be in, because the more times you put yourself in contention you feel like at one point it's going to fall your way. … I was actually talking to my mental coach about it, but it's been, I think, some of the happiest moments in my short 24 years.”
The impetus to this refreshing, new chapter? Lydia being Lydia. Not the version of Lydia who won 19 times worldwide before turning 20. Not the version who shuffled through equipment and coaches and caddies only to further entrench herself in her slump. But the version that LPGA veteran Stacy Lewis once challenged her to be.
“You’ve got to be the best version of yourself now and not try to be who you were in the past,” Lewis told Lydia a couple of years ago.
“I think it really hit me then,” Lydia says, looking back. “I'm different every tournament. Every experience changes you, for the good or the bad. That's why I say age is just a number, but experience is a whole new thing.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday in Naples, Lydia recounted a story from earlier in the week when she waked past a photo in the Tiburon clubhouse commemorating her CME win in 2014. In the image was a player –a baby-faced, spectacled Ko – she almost didn't recognize.
“I was like, ‘Dang, I've aged a lot in eight years,’" she quipped.
It’s rare that 24-year-olds are considered steely veterans, but that’s exactly what Lydia is these days. She’s been through the depths and come out of it smarter, stronger and with a smile.
She's not the same player she was at 15, but then again, that's OK.
"It’s always important to be authentically who you are," said Sean Foley, Lydia's swing coach since last year. "Lydz has a great smile, incredible laugh and she doesn’t really take herself that seriously, so you can't get on the course and do the opposite of that. You have to be true to who you are. She's doing that."
And this sensational comeback season is proof.