A year ago, Jin Young Ko was far from an unknown. She spring-boarded into 2019 off a runaway Rolex Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year effort the previous season. But she was still outside the top-10 in the Rolex Rankings and, with a ton of talent between her and No. 1, there was little reason to think she’d have a Rolex Player of the Year season.
But a quick start – second at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, T-29 at the Honda Thailand and T-3 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore – infused Ko with momentum. She rode that upswing to victory at the Volvik Founders Cup and T-2 at the Kia Classic before a win at the ANA Inspiration, the first of her two major championships in 2019, which propelled her to Rolex No. 1.
Ko picks up the 2020 schedule at the Founders Cup without the benefit of a running start this time. She didn’t play Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, Gainbridge at Rio Boca, Women’s Australian Open or ISPS Handa Vic Open. Then when the Coronavirus postponed Thailand, Singapore and Blue Bay China, the 24-year-old South Korean, who won four times last year, was left without a start in 2020.
But while Ko has been short on competitive reps, she’s worked hard on her game, putting in sessions with her swing coach So Woo Lee in San Diego, according to her caddie, veteran looper Dave Brooker.
At the end of this month, Ko will go to Phoenix to get ready to defend her Founders Cup title, Brooker says. She’s also played a few practice rounds at Aviara, where the Kia Classic is held, and Mission Hills, where she will try to become the first back-to-back winner of the ANA Inspiration since Annika Sorenstam in 2001-02.
Founders Cup, Kia Classic and ANA Inspiration launched Ko on her breakout 2019 campaign. And that trio of events will be where she begins her effort to stay atop the Rolex Rankings and defend Rolex Player of the Year, which no one has done since Yani Tseng 2010-11.
While Ko has a large lead in the Rolex Rankings – with 8.55 average points she is 2.66 ahead of No. 2 Nelly Korda – the 21-year-old American picked up points at Diamond Resorts, Gainbridge and the Women’s Australian Open to leapfrog Sung Hyun Park into the second spot as a deep pool of players chase Ko.
There is the same distance – 2.66 points – between Korda and No. 22 Amy Yang – as there is between Ko and Korda. While it is unlikely Ko will go back to the pack – she’s missed only one cut in 47 LPGA Tour starts – the chances at least one player among the 21 in the jumble for No. 2 makes a big move are pretty good.
The postponement of the three tournaments creates challenges for players looking to move up the Rolex Rankings. But it also generates opportunity for events in the first half of the season as players try to qualify for the Olympic Games Aug. 5-8 near Tokyo and the UL International Crown Aug. 27-30 near London.
Qualifying for the Olympics closes June 29, after the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, and the eight teams in the International Crown will be set by the Rolex Rankings of June 1. Anyone with those international aspirations will likely be taking no weeks off the first half of the season, ensuring quality fields.
Among those impacted by the postponed events are two Americans and a South Korean currently on the outside looking in for the Olympics. A country can qualify as many as four players for the Games as long as all four are within the top-15 of the Rolex Rankings. As of now, it appears only South Korea and the U.S. have that opportunity.
The Korean team now is No. 1 Ko, No. 3 Park, No. 6 Sei Young Kim and No. 9 Jeongeun Lee6. Trying to crack that top four are No. 11 Inbee Park and No. 13 Hyo-Joo Kim. Fighting to get into the Rolex top 15 is No. 18 So Yeon Ryu. That’s seven Koreans scrambling for all the Rolex points they can get.
Among the Americans, No. 2 Korda, No. 5 Danielle Kang and No. 10 Lexi Thompson are currently Olympic qualified. In need of points are No. 17 Jessica Korda and No. 19 Lizette Salas. Clearly, the scheduling hiccup has intensified the importance of the first six months.
And while global health concerns have interrupted the Tour, the break has given fans the chance to relish the excitement ahead, spiced up this year by the Olympics and International Crown. While there is a break in the action, there is a lot to look forward to. The LPGA’s 70th anniversary season should be a humdinger and what better place to next celebrate than the Founders Cup.