NAPLES, FLORIDA | As she walked away to hug her family and pack up for the drive back home to Orlando, Lydia Ko stopped and smiled when she realized something. “Eight under today to finish off my eighth year,” she said, referring to the 64 she shot on Sunday in the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship to finish tied for ninth at 15-under par, a fitting capstone of a season that earned Ko the Vare Trophy for low stroke average.
The CME represented Ko’s 10th top-10 of 2021, which included one victory at the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii, marking one of the most consistent seasons she’s had in her career. The closing 64 also marked a new trend. It was the sixth time in 2021 that the 24-year-old New Zealander shot 65 or better in the final round.
“You want to finish every tournament on a high. But this being the last (event of the year), there is no redemption. There is no next event,” Ko said. “So, yeah, I just wanted to play well. I think that's why, over this weekend, I got a little bit more frustrated over mistakes that maybe at times I would just normally go, ‘Oh, it's okay.’ But especially with the Vare Trophy being at the back of my mind, I think I just really wanted to top it off. To be able to have done that, there is no better way to finish this year.”
The Vare was one of the few awards Ko had yet to capture. And it was one of the reasons she changed her plans late in the year. After competing in an LET event in the Middle East, she planned to take a break before the CME Group Tour Championship. Then she learned that she needed to post a few more rounds to be eligible to win the Vare, so she signed up for the Pelican Women’s Championship. That turned out to be a fortuitous move as Ko finished tied for second at Pelican, losing to a Nelly Korda birdie on the first playoff hole.
“(The Vare Trophy) is really special because obviously it sums up the whole season,” Ko said after locking up the award in Naples. “All the other (awards and records) do, too. But at the end of the day golf is about how consistently well you can play and what kind of low scores you can shoot. The Vare Trophy obviously exemplifies that. I think I've only been close one year and I just missed out on the trophy.
“I didn't even know that I was close this year until news came out and I realized a couple months ago. Last week (at the Pelican) wasn't really on my schedule. But it ended up being worth it because finishing tied second and to have won (the Vare) feels special. It just makes a good year even better.”
The resurgence of Ko’s career is nothing short of remarkable. Too often players who peak at a young age, as Ko did as a teenager when she became the youngest person in history, man or woman, to reach No. 1 in the world, never bounce back once that initial surge wears off. But after a series of struggles, Ko has vaulted back into one of the most consistent contenders on Tour. She puts rest and perspective at the top of the reasons why.
“I think last year when we had that six months off (for the pandemic) it was probably some of the most important time in my career,” she said. “You know, we always say the off-season is short and it really is. It's only a couple months and then the first event is around the corner. So, having that six months I was able to really assess where I was at, not only from a technical standpoint but where I was mentally as well. You know, just to see the time that I put in at the gym or the time that I put in with Sean (Foley, her coach) or other things like that, that paid off.
“Sometimes it's hard to be patient when things just don't go your way. But to have that momentum shifted, I think it just helped a lot with the confidence. I think the win in Hawaii was really a huge turnaround for me. I think that was just where I started believing in myself again. And obviously that's such an important aspect when you're out there playing.”
Just to clarify, she’s not pro-pandemic. But after seeing the results, she is pro-rest.
“Yeah, pro-break,” she said. “I normally take a whole month off. This year I'm going to plan my off-season a little bit differently. But I think no matter how well you're playing, even if you don't have a good year, it is good to have that time to relax and not think about, do I have to wake up at 7:00 in the morning and make sure I putt for 50 minutes and do all that. I think it all piles up.
“I think sometimes those breaks are just good to get you mentally prepared. You know, go back to zero and just kind of start new. Every season is a new chapter in a book, and I think the break was a whole new chapter itself for me.”
The next chapter for Ko begins in January at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions where she be introduced as the 2021 Vare Trophy winner. That will be different. And it will be great.