ADELAIDE, South Australia – The pipeline of talent to the LPGA apparently has an endless supply of players. One year after Sung Hyun Park matched Nancy Lopez as the only ones to win Rolex Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year in the same season, Jin Young Ko is starting 2018 as if she wants to make that elite duo a threesome.
With her three-stroke victory over Hyejin Choi on Sunday in the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, the 22-year-old rookie from South Korea became the first player in 67 years to win in her debut tournament as an LPGA member and only the second in the tour’s history, equaling the feat pulled off by Beverley Hanson in 1951, just the tour’s second year.
Ko, who earned LPGA membership when she won the KEB Hana Bank Championship last October, was impressive start to finish at Kooyonga Golf Club, leading wire-to-wire. She began Sunday’s final round four strokes ahead of Hannah Green and put the title away with a closing 69 that left her at 14-under-par 274.
Choi was at 277 with Green at 278 and Katherine Kirk at 279 after a blistering 65 in the final round. Minjee Lee, Charley Hull, Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, Emma Talley, So Yeon Ryu, Georgia Hall, another Rookie of the Year contender, and Lydia Ko all had top-20 finishes.
Jin Young Ko, who has nine wins on the KLPGA, burst on the scene when she finished second to Inbee Park in the 2015 Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry after squandering a three-stroke lead on the back nine at the age of 20. It seems as if that painful experience was a steppingstone for her rather than a stumbling block as she won three times on the KLPGA in both 2016 and 2017.
Ko showed her resiliency at Turnberry by employing a caddie she met only the day before the tournament began and by adapting quickly to links golf, which she had never played before. In Australia, she once again displayed a mental approach that is one of the strengths of her game, revealing no signs of pressure in her LPGA debut.
“I focused on my game and I think my chipping and putting were keys,” she said about her solid play at Kooyonga. “This course is narrow, and then there’s the green, so I’m thinking about only the greens and then try to two putt,” she said of her strategy for the final round.
If there were any concerns that final-round nerves would once again do her in as it had a Turnberry, Ko did her best to dispel them with a birdie-birdie start Sunday despite a furious run by Kirk, an Aussie heroine, who went out in 31. But what had been a six-stroke lead after two holes for Ko dwindled to one when Choi posted a front nine 32 and Ko erased her early birdies with two bogeys.
But a birdie on No. 9 and another at No. 13 righted the ship for Ko and pushed the lead back to three strokes, which she protected the rest of the way.
This is the 40th anniversary of when Lopez burst on the scene as a 21-year-old and captured the hearts and minds of the entire sporting world in 1978 with nine wins, including a record five in a row as she launched a Hall-of-Fame career in which she notched 48 LPGA titles. Looking at all the young talent now on tour you can’t help but wonder who could rise above the crowd and put up Lopez-like numbers.
The last half-dozen Rookie of the Year winners have been an impressive crew that includes Park, In Gee Chun, Sei Young Kim, Lydia Ko, Moriya Jutanugarn and So Yeon Ryu. None of those have proven to be a fluke and all seem to be here to stay. Park, Chun, Ko and Ryu have won major championships and both Ko and Ryu have been Player of the Year.
Now, add another Ko to the mix with Jin Young joining Lydia as a talent to be respected. Of course, the key to greatness is to build upon success. The next two tour stops will be the Honda LPGA Thailand this week, where Lexi Thompson, a Player of the Year threat, will make her second start of 2018, followed by the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore before the LPGA returns to the U.S. at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix.
There are 31 more tournaments before the Race to the CME Globe ends at the CME Group Tour Championship in November. And with the scintillating win by Brittany Lincicome in the season-opening Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic followed by this impressive effort by Jin Young Ko in Australia the year if off to a rocking start, one befitting of a way to honor what Nancy Lopez achieved 40 years ago.