The momentum appears to be building for Jin Young Ko. Swinging with the relentless rhythm of a metronome, the reigning Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year lulled Mission Hills into submission with four days of effortless golf to win the ANA Inspiration by three strokes over Mi Hyang Lee at 10-under-par 278, the steady tick-tock of Ko’s game virtually unfailing as she broke par every day.
Jin Young closed with a 70 on Sunday to become the 15th different Korean to win an LPGA major since Se Ri Pak broke through in 1998 with the KPMG Women’s PGA and the U.S. Women’s Open. Quietly, Ko’s pursuit of greatness is growing louder. Even as the desert heat climbed into the 90s, she coolly stalked her first major, making it feel like it won’t be her last.
Lee, playing in the twosomes in front of Ko, kept the pressure on with an outgoing 35 and a spotless back nine, closing with a 70 of her own. And when Ko made bogeys on Nos. 13 and 15, mostly because of bad bounces, Lee pulled within a single stroke.
But a 12-foot birdie putt by Ko on No. 16 restored order and returned her round to rhythm. A birdie on No. 18 was icing on a cake that appears to be adding layers of greatness. When the final putt dropped the suppressed emotions of the day erupted. Her hands went to her face and tears flowed freely as her caddie Dave Brooker swallowed her with a hug.
“I won the tournament and that’s a happy moment,” Ko said through tears of joy. “I thank God, I thank my parents, I thank my grandparents. It is an honor for me to join so many great Korean players. I’m honored to be here.”
The arc of Ko’s career is impressive. At 20, she was second at the 2015 AIG Women’s British Open; she picked up her first LPGA win in 2017 and won again in 2018 on her way to being Rookie of the Year. Now she has two titles this year, adding the ANA Inspiration to the Bank of Hope Founders Cup as she stalks a Player of the Year award to serve as bookends with her Rookie of the Year trophy.
If you searched for a word to describe Ko that word would be balance. Both physically and emotionally, this poised young woman who favors the simplicity of black and white attire is rarely out of balance. But for a brief nap midway through Saturday’s back nine – she double bogeyed No. 14 then bogeyed 15 – Ko would have had a sizable lead entering the final round.
Instead, she began Sunday at 8-under-par 208, one stroke ahead of In-Kyung Kim and three clear of Danielle Kang and Lee. But if the misfortunes of Saturday’s back nine were on her mind they were well hidden. She hit fairways; hit greens and made putts, never really opening the window of opportunity for her challengers.
Lexi Thompson made a run at Ko but her seven-stroke deficit was too much to make up. Thompson closed with a 67 and got in the clubhouse at 6-under-par 282 while Ko was standing in the tenth fairway. It was too little too late.
“It feels amazing,” Thompson said about her strong finish. “I birdied the first hole and actually hit a ball OB on No. 3 but still managed to make bogey. My caddie Benji helped out tremendously,” she said about Benji Thompson, who carried her to victory here in 2014 and returned to her bag last week for the third time after a stint on the men’s tour.
Carlota Ciganda closed with a 68 to be tied for fourth at 283 with Kim and a 66 put Kristen Gillman at 284 along with Jessica Korda, Ally McDonald, Hyo Joo Kim, Kang and Jeongeun Lee6. Jaye Marie Green, Jenny Shin, Moriya Jutanugarn, Charley Hull and Jing Yan were at 285.
Kim and Kang both had the experience of winning a major to draw on, Kim at the 2017 AIG Women’s British Open and Kang at the KPMG Women’s PGA the same year. But they were unable to hang with Ko on his major championship Sunday. Only Lee and Lexi made a serious move.
Look at what Ko has learned. In that 2015 Women’s British Open, she had a three-stroke lead with six holes to play but made a bogey on No. 13 and doubled No. 16 while Inbee Park eagled No. 14 and birdied No. 16 on her way to a 65 and a seventh major title, three strokes ahead of Ko. But Ko is clearly a fast learner.
When she made that two-hole mistake on Saturday she said: “I am not a robot; I’m human.” That’s a winning attitude for any athlete in any sport. In three previous appearances at the ANA Inspiration, Ko’s best finish was T-64 last year. She’s in a whole new world now.
That sound you hear is the beat of that metronome to which Jin Young Ko plays her game. Get used to it. Not much seems to rattle this young woman. On Sunday, Jin Young dove into Poppie’s Pond for the first time, but it sure doesn’t feel like it will be the last. This young woman is calmly Kolossal. You can set your watch to it.