RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Jin Young Ko was not a fan of Mission Hills Golf Club. That was, at least, until she won here in 2019.
The current world No. 1 earned her first major title at the ANA Inspiration two years ago. But prior to her breakthrough win, she hadn’t finished better than T-64 in three previous starts on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course. Those poor showings created negative feelings about the course and further snowballed, which led to more bad memories whenever she played there.
So, what changed?
Prior to joining the tour in 2018, Ko made the trip each year from her home in Korea to California. The flight time is over 13 hours from Seoul to Los Angeles. For Ko, the jet lag was debilitating. She didn’t have the energy to muscle her way around Mission Hills, which at the time had much longer rough and more narrow fairways.
“[You] feel like an octopus when you get here from Korea,” Ko told GolfChannel.com. “I had no energy before the 2017 or ’18, when I played this course. My body was weaker. It was really hard.”
Prior to the 2019 ANA Inspiration, Ko spent March in the United States, competing on the LPGA Tour. It made her stronger, rested and well-adjusted to the time difference when she teed it up at the year’s first major. From there, the results followed, which led to positive memories and a completely different feeling about the golf course.
“I have really great memories, so I love this course,” Ko said about her change of heart. “[On] 18, the last hole, I made a birdie and I won [by three shots] so it was a good memory in my life.”
The 18th hole will play much different than when she last played the course last. She skipped the 2020 ANA Inspiration that was postponed to September due to the coronavirus pandemic. This week, the hole will play as originally designed with an island green, without any grandstands or hospitality framing the back of the hole. Wednesday, LPGA rules officials said they intend to move up the tee each day to entice players to try and make eagle and go for the par 5 in two. Ko laid up en route to her victory in 2019. When asked about how the hole looked now, Ko simply said, “dangerous.”
“If the tees are forward, I might have a chance to [go for] the green with a 5-wood or a hybrid,” she said. “But it's going to be more firm. The green on Saturday or Sunday, I think there’s a chance [to go for it]. Otherwise, I might lay up.”
Tuesday, Ko played the back nine and said the course is playing tougher than when she won at 10 under par. She expects birdies to be few and far between this time around. But, if Ko hadn’t won in 2019, is it possible she could have learned to love the test that is Mission Hills?
“Well, if I finished top two or three, maybe. Little chance,” Ko said with a laugh.