Now it makes sense. For eight full years, fans of women’s golf have watched the phenomenal Lydia Ko with a sense of awe, not just at the way she played the game but for the old soul that seemed to dwell in this young girl. From a bespeckled teenager with a preternatural calm to a young adult who owned jaw-dropping wisdom and kindness, Lydia has always amazed, no matter the numbers on her scorecard.
From her home in Orlando where she is awaiting the resumption of the 2020 LPGA Tour season, a thoughtful Ko, who just celebrated her 23rd birthday, reflected on this week two years ago when she captured her most recent Tour title, the 2018 MEDIHEAL Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City, Calif., just outside San Francisco. While remembering that week and the tremendous finish that will go down as one of the most memorable in Ko’s incredible career, she also shed some light into what makes her different, and why those who follow the women’s game are drawn to her.
“I always feel like God has a plan and knows already who is going to win,” Lydia told LPGA.com. “But for us, being there in the moment, we don’t know. We’re just doing the best we can and playing into His story. So, that week (at the 2018 MEDIHEAL) I said to myself, ‘God already has determined the winner. All I can do is my best, have fun and be in the moment.’”
The week and the win were more important than most for Ko. Even her major championships weren’t as big, because they didn’t lift a heavy burden like the win in Daly City.
“No matter how often you get in that position (to win), it’s always a little different,” Ko said. “A lot of my early wins, I had big margins. I think my first win in San Francisco (in 2014, the week she celebrated her 17th birthday) was one of the first times a win came down to the final hole. But this time (in 2018), as soon as (the final) putt went in, a lot of emotions went through me. A lot of weight from my shoulders was taken off.
“It meant a lot for me and my family. One of my sponsors in Korea was watching with my dad and my dad even cried. My sister cried. Ted (Oh), who was my coach at the time, cried. It was a water bath. But it really meant a lot, not just for me but for my team and our family.”
Ko had been the object of much criticism and scorn prior to that victory. Every change the 21-year-old made, whether it was a new coach, new clubs, a different golf ball, a new diet, a different workout routine or a new hairstyle, brought out a parade of pariahs ready to pounce. She wasn’t winning because she’d lost weight - as if bodies don’t change from teens to adulthood. She dropped in the Rolex Rankings because she’d changed equipment – as if new clubs don’t appear on Tour ranges every week.
But the most vile and hurtful criticisms involved her family. Ko’s critics said awful things about how her parents were unduly influencing her, forgetting that this young woman still isn’t old enough to rent a car. The week she won at Lake Merced was the first time she could legally buy a celebratory drink. What would be said of parents who didn’t provide guidance to a child from age 15 to 21? What sort of dereliction would it be not to nurture a talented child?
Tina Hyeon and Gil Hong Ko raised two remarkably kind, mature and well-adjusted daughters, a fact that made the vicious attacks levied against them all the more painful. Lydia played the 2018 MEDIHEAL for them.
“I was super excited to be back in San Francisco after we hadn’t played there in a couple of years,” she said. “Daly City has a pretty big Asian community as well and the former mayor is a big supporter of golf, so it was great to be back there. I’ve always loved it there. My friends were there as well. They surprised me. My sister organized for a couple of them to come over.
“I was 100% in the moment that week, but I wasn’t 100% results oriented. I started the tournament well. I didn’t realize until this week (two years later) that I led the tournament wire to wire. Gary (Williams with Golf Channel) told me and I said, ‘Oh, I did?’
“Certainly, on the last day, I was excited to play with Jessica (Korda) who is probably my favorite person to play with on tour. I didn’t start well but made a couple of birdies late on the front nine. My turning point was my birdie on No. 7. That shifted the momentum.”
Then, with Minjee Lee making a charge, Lydia hit two of the best 3-wood shots of her life. The first came in regulation at the par-5 15th. From a distance that the Lydia Ko of old would have had trouble getting close to the green, the stronger and faster 21-year-old Lydia ripped a shot past the pin. “It ended up just 20 feet by the hole (for eagle),” she said. “I was shocked when the putt didn’t go in.”
A tap in for birdie followed by another near eagle at 18, this one with as deft a chip shot as she had hit in years, left Lydia tied with Minjee.
The playoff started on the par-5 18th.
Then came the second 3-wood, the best of her career and arguably the shot of the year. “There was a lot of adrenalin,” Lydia said of the 3-wood that cleared a tree, took one hop and rolled to within three feet for eagle. “Even now, I think if I put down 100 balls, I don’t know if I could hit two 3-woods like I did on 15 (in regulation) and (on 18) in the playoff,” she said. “It’s not often that you say a 3-w00d was a clincher but in this instance it really was.”
Two years later, fresh from a workout and in the middle of the longest competitive break she has taken since picking up a club, Lydia broke into the infectious smile that has drawn fans to her since she first showed up as a 14-year-old amateur.
“I played pretty consistently coming down the stretch that week,” she said. “But it was exciting even to the last minute. Minjee made a long birdie putt (in the playoff) to put a little more pressure on my three-footer. But I was happy it went in. We both played our best and I was lucky to be on the winning end.
“I guess that week, I was the winner in God’s plan,” she said. “It goes to show, you never know. You can never give up until you take the glove off at the end.”