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Lydia Ko back in LPGA winner's circle after Lotte Championship rout

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It’s become commonplace these past few weeks in professional golf: Lengthy victory droughts ending for some of the game’s biggest names.

First, it was Jordan Spieth capturing the Valero Texas Open two Sundays ago and winning for the first time since the 2017 Open Championship.

A week later, it was Hideki Matsuyama grabbing his first major title last Sunday at Augusta National, his Masters triumph halting his losing skid at 1,344 days, just seven shorter than Spieth’s.

Now, add Lydia Ko’s name to this recent trend.

The 23-year-old former world No. 1 blitzed the field at the Lotte Championship on Saturday in Hawaii to post her first victory since the 2018 Mediheal Championship – 1,084 days ago – and just her second since winning her 14th LPGA title as a 19-year-old in 2016. Ko shot her second straight 7-under 65 to finish at 28 under, the third-lowest round in tour history, and win LPGA trophy No. 16 by seven shots.

"A lot's going through my mind right now," Ko told Golf Channel afterward.

Moments later, she offered more reflection: "When you're in that position [to win] and it doesn't happen, you do doubt. If I said, no, I didn't doubt myself at all, that would be a lie. Hand on my heart, there were times when I wondered, 'Hey, I don't know if I'm ever going to be back in the winner's circle.' ... To be back in this kind of position is obviously super cool. You know, with Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama winning the last couple weeks – and I know it's been a while since they won, as well – that kind of gave me a little bit of hope that maybe I could follow that trend."

Just don’t say she’s back.

“I was actually thinking in my head, I wonder if on the [Golf Channel] coverage they are going to be like, ‘Oh, Lydia Ko is back,’” Ko said after her runner-up finish two weeks ago at the ANA Inspiration, where she closed in a women’s major record-tying 62. “I hope it’s not the sense that I’m back to a position where I was or where I could be. I just want to be the best version of myself right now. I’ve had so many different experiences, ups and downs since I was world No. 1, to this point and I think at the end of the day I’m not going to be the same person anymore.”


Lydia Ko credits support system in Lotte victory

Lydia Ko credits support system in Lotte victory

It’s been almost a decade since Ko won the 2012 CN Canadian Women’s Open at age 15, becoming the youngest LPGA winner ever in the process. A year later, she turned pro. A year after that, at age 17, she ascended to the top spot in the Rolex Rankings for the first time, and she remains the youngest player, male or female, to reach No. 1 in the world.

She had 17 worldwide wins, including two majors, before turning 19. Tiger Woods didn’t reach that mark until he was nearly 24 years old.

But after winning 19 times worldwide by the end of 2016, Ko, sensing something was off, decided to make sweeping changes. She changed coaches and caddies multiple times, and she also opted for a full equipment switch. She went winless the next year and dropped out of the world top 10 by 2018, but her biggest struggles came in 2019, when she closed the year with 11 finishes outside the top 20 in 12 starts.

“Her parents have a lot to answer for — a case of unbelievable ignorance,” Ko’s former coach David Leadbetter, who coached Ko during her first three years as a pro, told a New Zealand radio station during that slump.

Ko reached an all-time world-rankings low last August, falling to No. 55 after her first event back from the pandemic pause. But after linking up with instructor Sean Foley early last year, Ko started to get going again by year’s end. 

"Sean, in particular, has been a huge help to clear a lot of questions and doubt in my mind," Ko said.


Full-field scores from the Lotte Championship


The week after falling to 55th in the world, a rejuvenated Ko tied for second at the Marathon LPGA Classic, her first of nine top-10s in 16 starts entering this week. She is also the only player in the world to finish in the top 20 in all five majors played since the beginning of last year.

And after Saturday's win, she's poised to climb from 11th to back inside the top 10 in the Rolex Rankings.

“I think everything happens for a reason and I am in this position for a reason,” Ko said after the ANA. “All I can do is keep working hard and see where it takes me. This is another Sean thing. He said, ‘We’re always in the position or place that we are meant to be at that time.’ He said just because I win an event or miss the cut, that doesn’t make me a better or worse human being, and I think that kind of strips everything back. All day I had in mind that God has a plan for all of us. I just have to believe that, have faith and go on my journey. I might not know what that journey is, but I feel like it’s all laid out. All I can do is try my best at that exact moment.”

Ko's winning moment Saturday at Kapolei Golf Club was essentially a foregone conclusion for hours. She shot 21 under, the best 54-hole mark in tournament history by four shots, to give herself a one-shot cushion over Nelly Korda entering the final round. While Korda didn't make a birdie until the 11th hole, Ko turned in another low round, carding seven birdies and no bogeys, to coast to victory.

Korda, Sei Young Kim, Inbee Park and Leona Maguire all shared second place, well behind Ko, who, amazingly, has made just one bogey in her last 100 holes and is 38 under in her last five rounds.

Ko told a story Saturday about how she couldn't sleep on the eve of last fall's Marathon Classic final round despite holding a four-shot lead. She then led by five with six holes to play before struggling down the stretch and watching as Danielle Kang overtook her to win the title. She chalked that failure up to her putting too much pressure on herself, and it also didn't help that she hadn't experienced contention in a while.

She didn't have those issues sleeping on another 54-hole lead Friday night.

"I slept great last night," Ko said. "I just said, 'Hey, my fate is already chosen, and I'm just going to play the best golf I can today.' ... I think this proves it to myself, and I know that's the biggest thing."