Jin Young Ko’s sophomore LPGA Tour season, which includes four wins, two of them majors, has put her in a spot few have visited. Even though there is still a lot of golf to be played in 2019, Ko could conceivably chase down two all-time LPGA records: one for lowest scoring average, and the other for the highest percentage of greens hit in regulation. Both those records belong to Annika Sorenstam, who won 11 times in 2002, averaging 68.697 for the year and hitting 79.7% of her greens.
Back in February, Ko said, “I want to try (to win) a major, lots of wins, the Annika Award and the Vare Trophy.”
Going four for four seemed like a stretch at the time. But not only has Ko accomplished three of her projected goals with a month left in the 2019 LPGA Tour season, she is on course to capture the Vare Trophy in potentially record fashion. Additionally, she added the longest bogey-free streak in the history of the LPGA and PGA Tour - at 114 holes.
If Ko didn’t play another round, she’d have the second lowest scoring average of all time at 68.851. She’d be only the second player in the history of the LPGA Tour to record an average below 69. She has 16 rounds left on her 2019 schedule, with no cut at any of those four tournaments. If Ko averages 68 for the rest of the season, she will finish up with the all-time lowest average.
That average is driven by Ko finding greens at a historic pace. She currently sits at 79.9%, 0.2%, better than Sorenstam’s 17-year-old record. It’s the highest mark of all time on both the LPGA and PGA Tour - if it stands. Tiger Woods set the PGA Tour record in 2000 at 75.2%.
More than the two records connect Sorenstam and Ko. David Brooker, Ko’s caddie, sees how an incredibly straight ball flight from both the former and current World No.1s correlates with their consistency.
“For the likes of Jin Young and Annika, that’s all they see,” Brooker said. “If their swing is this repetitive and so consistent, hitting it straight is the best way for them.”
Hitting it straight is also a sign of solid contact, which means Ko’s distance control is usually spot on.
“That’s the key to her game, her distance control is so good with her irons because the ball is predominantly dead straight,” Brooker added. “Over the course of this season, I’ve seen her hit less than a dozen bad shots.”
Since moving to the United Sates in 2018, Ko has led the LPGA Tour in greens in regulation.
“This is the first time in a few years we’ve seen these numbers. Consistency pays off,” Sorenstam noted of Ko’s record chasing season.
Greens in regulation was one of the key stats for Sorenstam over the course of her career because it encompasses multiple parts of the game.
“If you don’t hit fairways, it’s very hard to hit greens,” Sorenstam explained. “If you’re on the green, not a lot of things can go wrong there. That’s where you save shots.”
Finding nearly 80% of greens is an accomplishment only a few can appreciate. “It’s more than physical and mental, it’s a test of patience; it’s a test of perseverance,” Sorenstam said. “It’s not just your swing and having the right distance.”
Ko’s mental stamina has grown as she’s become more accustomed to the LPGA’s travel schedule. A learning moment for her was after her first victory in 2019, at the Bank of Hope
Founders Cup. Ko immediately traveled to San Diego for the next tournament and played nine holes on Monday, the day after she won, to beat the Tuesday practice rush.
As the season has progressed, Ko has learned how much practice she needs. She spends more time in her hotel room, working on drills and relaxing.
“Playing as well as she’s played, her swing is in good order, her game is in good order. When you’ve got confidence, there’s no reason to really overdo it,” Brooker explained.
Ko will occasionally play just nine holes in the Wednesday Pro-Am, to give herself the opportunity to recharge. She notably did this before her victory at the CP Women’s Open.
Her Sunday playing partner in Canada, Brooke Henderson, notices the difference in Ko’s game in 2019. “She’s got it all this year, especially her putting,” Henderson said. “I think if I could work on my game and match hers there, maybe I could be as good as she is and put myself in contention a little bit more. Just around the short game, she’s been extremely steady.”
Ko’s two-week short-game lesson last offseason with Gareth Raflewski paid off. She made a jump in putts-per-green-in-regulation.
“When my putting-per-green-in-regulation statistics were around 1.74 or 1.75, I knew that I would be up there (in contention),” Sorenstam said.
Ko sits at Sorenstam’s magic number, 1.74. She jumped from 23rd on the LPGA Tour in 2018 to third this season.
It wasn’t just those two weeks with Raflewski that made Ko a better putter. She committed to working on her putting mechanics one hour a day in her room while traveling. She uses a ruler
to ensure the ball is coming straight off the putter, and she also sends videos to Raflewski, who provides feedback.
In her prime, Sorenstam would putt for an hour in the morning, focusing on technique, and an hour in the afternoon, focusing on read and feel.
The similarities in method and result are not lost on those who know them both.
But there’s one more similarity between Ko and Sorenstam, one that few playing on the LPGA Tour today will notice, because so few were there to see Annika in her prime.
“She’s the nicest person. But then she will also kick your butt,” Henderson said of Ko. “That’s exactly what you want. She’s like the perfect competitor.”
Those who watched or played with Sorenstam know exactly what Henderson means.