GALLOWAY, N.J. | It was 1996 when, in his first long-form sit-down interview as a pro, Tiger Woods made one of his most prophetic declarations. “Second place sucks,” Tiger said. Curtis Strange, who was interviewing him, smiled and said, “You’ll learn.”
A quarter century later, it was we who learned. Tiger taught a generation to play to win or go home, to accept nothing short of victory every shot, every day, every week.
One of the players who has embraced that philosophy is Jin Young Ko.
A week ago in Arkansas, Ko put together a sold 54 holes but failed to catch Nasa Hataoka in the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. When asked what she hopes to accomplish in events like that, Ko said, “Win every tournament.”
That’s it. Three words, one philosophy. She’s too proper and courtly to say “second place sucks,” but the concept is the same.
The daughter of a boxer, Ko, who shot 66-65 in the first two rounds of the ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer to take an early Saturday lead, looks like a character out of a Rocky movie. Soft spoken, dead eyed, and impossible to rattle, she keeps coming at you, round after round, until you make one mistake. Then a killer right hook puts you away.
“I had a lot of good opportunities for birdies,” she said of her Saturday performance. “I made a lot of really good putts, so I didn't make a bogey today. That makes me very happy and I can't wait to play for tomorrow.”
She had made a couple of bogeys on Friday that irked her. And she went straight to the putting green after her opening round to work on a stroke that looked flawless to everybody but her.
“My putting has been good since [the Cambia] Portland [Classic],” she said.
The kind of work Ko puts in will do that. The night before she won her first major, the 2019 ANA Inspiration, the maintenance staff had to mow the putting green around her in the dark.
This Saturday on the Jersey Shore, she had five birdies in six holes on her final nine, a fact she didn’t realize until she was told after her round. “I didn't know that I got five birdies in six holes. Really? My putting was good. Yeah, putting, swinging, everything was good.”
If she holds on, Ko will become the fifth Korean player in LPGA Tour history with 10 wins, joining Se Ri Pak, Ji-Yai Shin, Inbee Park and Sei Young Kim. One of those players, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park, is nipping at Ko’s heels in New Jersey. So is former Rolex Ranking No. 1 So Yeon Ryu. With those names and others peppering the leaderboard, Ko won’t get ahead of herself. She will do what she always does: When the bell rings, she will come out swinging, never stopping, never relenting.
“A lot depends on what position I’m in,” she said. “If I'm going into the final round leading, I will be more aggressive in my play. This course is a little shorter so we can get a lot of birdies. So, yeah. I will likely have some aggressive play tomorrow.”
Her father trained her, not in golf but in how to be fit and tough. In grade school, she could skip rope for hours, a skill that won her a school physical fitness contest in Korea. Her dad wasn’t much of a golfer. But the mindset, first or nothing, was his gift to his daughter.
“My father is strong,” Ko said. “My father has strong mentally. He wants me to be stronger and stronger every day. So, I will try to do that.”
First or nothing. Win every tournament. It is the mindset of a champion and a philosophy that has built civilizations. Sunday, we will learn if it will move Jin Young Ko into an even more elite group of professionals.