Few things in life are more painful than watching a loved one battle the steady, tightening grip of dementia, standing by helplessly as they fight each day to hold one more memory, knowing where the journey ends and standing tall to face it. My biggest fan, my grandfather, Ik Joo Ko, spent his final years on earth punching back against Alzheimer’s disease. It was sad and difficult to see, and yet inspiring to witness his courage and dignity as the cruel thief robbed a little more of him each day.
My grandfather named me Jin Young. I was his first granddaughter and we bonded from the beginning. My earliest memories are of him getting on the floor to play with me, hugging me and making me laugh.
I am a little different from most of the LPGA Tour players who come from Korea in that neither my parents nor my grandparents got me into golf. My father, Sung Tae Ko, was a boxer earlier in his life. And while my mother, Mi Kyung Kim, started golf as an adult, she did not take me with her to the course or the range. It wasn’t until I was in grade school that my father and I watched a replay of Se Ri Pak winning the U.S. Women’s Open and I said, “I think I would like to try that.” So, my father and I hit our first golf shots on the same day.
I loved everything about the game: the precision, the movement, the beauty and the concentration it required. And I always had the love and support of my family. While my father could not give me golf tips, as a boxer, he inspired me to be both physically and mentally fit for the game. He always told me, “No matter what you do, stamina is the key to success.” So, we would jump rope together for long periods of time. I trained for golf like a fighter would train for a title bout. My school held a jump-rope contest among all the students, which I won because of my father.
I worked hard on my game as a teenager with the dream of playing at the highest level. I also loved my family and did not want to venture too far from home right away. Thankfully, when I turned pro at 18, I qualified for the KLPGA and my parents and I were able to travel around Korea as I played.
Unfortunately, by the summer of 2014, my rookie year on the KLPGA, my grandfather no longer recognized me when we were together. He remained a kind and gentle soul, but he couldn’t remember his family. However, in what I can only describe as a miracle, he recognized me on television. He would watch golf on TV and cheer for me whenever I was on the air. I was blessed enough to win 10 times on the KLPGA, and he was able to see them on television.
Then, in 2017, I won the KEB HanaBank Championship, the LPGA Tour’s event in Incheon at the time. It became apparent to me and to my family that it was time for me to join the LPGA Tour. When I first turned pro, I was too young to attempt to play in the U.S. Traveling around the world to places where I didn’t speak the language or understand the culture would have been difficult. By age 21, I had matured enough to make the move. My parents worried at first. Who’s wouldn’t? But when I won the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open early in my rookie season of 2018, they began to relax. It was obvious that I was adjusting, that I was ready.
I wasn’t ready for the news in April 2018. I was in Oahu, Hawaii, for the LOTTE Championship when I received a call that my grandfather had passed away. As hard as it is to watch someone you love suffer, it’s even harder to say goodbye. I flew from Honolulu to Seoul to be with my family. And for the rest of the year, including in my Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year acceptance speech, which I worked on for quite some time so that I could deliver it in English, I thanked “my grandfather in heaven” for supporting me, loving me and remaining my biggest fan to the end.
The LPGA Tour has become like a second home for me. I could never have imagined how close and how supportive the players, caddies, officials and staff are to one another. It is more than a group of friends; it is like a family. I have been fortunate enough to play well in my two full seasons on Tour. After being named Rookie of the Year, I won three times in 2019, including my first two major championships, the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship, which earned me the Rolex Player of the Year honor and the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award.
But more important than victories, I feel as though I have grown and developed relationships that will stay with me for the rest of my life. When I first considered turning pro, I thought I would play for 10 years, retire when I was 28 and settle down to start a family. Now, I will be 25 in July and can’t imagine leaving golf.
Things change. Life evolves.
I love interacting with fans on Tour. My social media feeds have gotten a lot more likes and comments from American and European fans and that means a lot to me. My language skills still aren’t the best (the English version of this story was written with the help of a translator). But like most of the Korean players on the LPGA Tour, I want my true personality to show; I want to engage with people and let them get to know me. I am, by nature, chatty, so it’s been hard not being able to communicate with my playing partners and fans. That is changing, now.
I want all fans to see me as more than the numbers on a scoreboard or trophies on a shelf. I am a friend, a daughter, a granddaughter and then a golfer. If people see me that way, my life and career will have been a success.