She holds the course record. In 2016, when she was 19 years old, Lydia Ko fired a 62 at Tiburon Golf Club in the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship. Four years later, on Thursday of this week, as she was cruising along the back nine at three over par, she said to herself, “Oh, wow, just 13 shots worse.”
Ko rallied with two birdies and a closing bogey on Thursday to shoot 74 in the first round of this CME Group Tour Championship. Then on Friday, as a frigid north wind blew into Naples like a crazy aunt at Christmas, Ko put a heat pack on her lower back and set the course ablaze, firing a 7-under 65, the low round of the day. She went from the bottom half of the field relegated to starting on the back nine, to within four shots of the lead and four groups behind the leaders going into the weekend.
“I was a lot more on the fairways and I was off to a much better start,” Ko said after the second round. “Yesterday I was 4-over through seven. At that point you are just trying to get birdies to have a comeback.
“I was able to do that somewhat. But I got off to a good start (today). You know, having lots of birdie opportunities was really key. Even though it was getting a little breezy at the start of the day, I set up a lot of good chances for birdies, so that makes it a lot less stressful. Whereas if you're trying to make up-and-downs, it wears you out pretty quick.”
She has certainly played the course differently in 2020 than she did in 2016 or in 2014 when she won the CME Group Tour Championship as a bespeckled 17-year-old. That year, she hit hybrid into the 18th hole almost every round, including the last one. They were her scoring clubs. Friday, she hit pitching wedge into 18.
“I hit a really good drive and I actually gripped it just for my self-confidence of saying, ‘Okay, I'm not going to hit it in that 285 (yard) bunker. I hit it and as I was walking, I was like, ‘I know that's Mel (Reid’s) ball because she hit a great drive. And then I was like, ‘Oh, no, where is my ball?’ And it had gone in the bunker. I said, ‘Hey, at least I've never been in here before.’ It was a pitching wedge (from there), so I was like, I broke two of my own records.
“But definitely I've noticed (that I’m hitting everything longer). At ANA, the course was playing pretty long, and I was hitting a lot shorter clubs than I did before.
“I think it's about bringing it all together. Obviously, that's the hardest thing at times. It’s definitely nice when you're hitting it a little bit longer and hopefully straight, and just one club less makes a huge difference.”
It comes as no surprise that Ko is stronger and faster at 24 than she was at 16. It’s called growing up. But with the added muscle and speed comes a new set of challenges as a mature Ko deals with the scars of failure, the lingering memory of misses and the doubts that always fill the void when invincibility fades.
“I think sometimes to be honest, the thing that gets in my way is myself, of me feeling like, ‘Okay, is this going to go straight, left, right?’ You know, all those weird thoughts that go through your head,” Ko said. “That's why Sean (Foley) has been helpful, trying to build my confidence. He sends me some songs randomly throughout the week and he gets me to listen to them.
“I think, obviously, the more I see (my shots) doing what I think they should be doing, the confidence kind of builds and the negative – those experiences before - are kind of slowly going away.”
With her ball striking as solid as ever and her distance at a level it has never been, Ko is one confidence-building win away from making another run.“I think it's like a building process,” she said. “But I'm definitely out there not thinking too much about technical things. I think it's more about being out there just believing in myself and hitting it as confidently as I can.”