For more than a year, Lydia Ko has changed everything except her mind, swapping out coaches, caddies and clubs. Such chaos seemed odd for someone with 14 LPGA wins before her 20th birthday. But what never changed was her belief in herself. And on Sunday, Ko won for the first time in 44 starts with a blistering 3-wood to 2 1/2 feet for an eagle that eliminated Minjee Lee on the first playoff hole at the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship.
The long-awaited win, coming less than a week after her 21st birthday, may have been Ko’s most emotional. When the winning putt dropped, she looked skyward, brushed tears from her eyes and was swallowed up in a hug from her current caddie, Johnny Scott, a bearded bear of a Scotsman who, along with new swing coach Ted Oh, is part of what seems to be a finally stabilized Ko team.
“It's crazy because I was three over for the day at one stage today and I said, ‘hey, you know, you've just got to focus and you never know what's going to happen,’” Ko said. “I was able to kind of put my game together on the back nine.” This may be the beginning of her putting her winning ways back together.
They say the best way to handle pressure is to send your mind to a happy place when push comes to shove. And when it comes to Lake Merced, both Ko and Lee had a lot of good memories to draw upon in this pressure-packed final round. Ko won the LPGA stop there in 2014 and ’15 while Lee took home the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship on the same course in 2012.
On Sunday, some last-minute dramatics were not enough to decide the title in regulation. Lee, playing in the penultimate group immediately in front of Ko, holed out from a greenside bunker on No. 17 for birdie and then rolled in a 6-footer on the final hole to get in at 12-under-par 276, closing with a 68.
Ko, who stumbled early with bogeys on three of the first six holes, birdied three of the final six – including the 18th after nearly pitching in for eagle – for a 71 that tied her with Lee. Then it was back out to No. 18 to play the par-5 again.
Lee outdrove Ko by 24 yards and had a 4-iron into the green. But Ko, hitting first, nearly holed her 3-wood from 230 yards for an albatross. Lee then missed the green with her second shot, pitched 10 feet past the hole – no doubt feeling she needed a chip-in to tie Ko – then made the birdie putt to keep the pressure on Lydia.
“I hit some really good 3-woods today and I said, ‘hey, you've got to maybe try and copy the one on the other par 5,’” Ko said. “I was able to hit a good shot again and I didn't really know how close it was going to be. But just to have a two-and-a-half foot putt to possibly win the event is a pretty good feeling, but also nerve wracking, too.”
Angel Yin, Shanshan Feng, Charley Hull and Jessica Korda, who started the day one stroke behind Ko, the 54-hole leader, tied for third at eight-under-par 280. Caroline Masson, Aditi Ashok, Ariya Jutanugarn and Nasa Hataoka finished at 281.
Both Ko and Lee, who is also 21 and has three LPGA wins, were trying to end losing streaks that date back to 2016. Lee had gone 35 events without a victory and Ko 44. While Ko walked away with the win, Lee will likely leave the Bay Area feeling like she is back in the mix as a tournament contender.
“When that putt dropped, I was like oh, my God,” Ko said. “I actually thought my chip might go in the first time I played the 18th hole, but a lot of emotions. My whole team and my family, they've worked really hard for this moment, so I'm happy that a few of them are here and we can celebrate together.”
No one worked harder than Ko. Despite the second-guessing, despite the months without a victory, she never lost her upbeat attitude and gentle, respectful way of interacting with others. In the end, she found that good things come to good people, even if it sometimes means waiting a little while.
With the victory by Ko of New Zealand, there have now been 10 tournaments this season with 10 different winners from six different countries. Can you say depth of talent? A swing that started in Phoenix and ended near San Francisco was a wild ride across the West Coast with Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee ending it with an appropriate exclamation mark.