Golf has been in the Olympics twice in the last century - 2016 in Rio and 2021 in Tokyo. Only one player has been on the podium at both. On both occasions, Lydia Ko just missed out on a gold medal. And on both occasions, she conducted herself as the model Olympian.
“Overall, I felt like I played really solid today,” Ko said after closing with a 65 on a rain-delayed Saturday. She finished the week 16-under par, one behind gold medalist Nelly Korda. Then, in a playoff for silver with Japan’s Mone Inami, Ko bogeyed the 18th hole at Kasumigaseki Country Club after finding a fairway bunker.
Ko finished with the bronze to go with her silver medal from 2016.
“There were a bunch of us at tied third and with this beautiful weather I think you've got to expect that everyone's going to play well, so I tried to play my best out there and have fun,” Ko said. “Before I teed off today Sean (Foley) my coach said something along the lines of, what's meant to be is going to be. So, I think that's what I tried to think today.
“The Olympics is a very special occasion. Obviously, yes, we play for our country. But this is for so much more than just us. It's a huge honor to be able to bring two medals for New Zealand and to be a two-time medalist. It's safe to say I've really enjoyed my two times at the Olympics.”
In many respects, she’s the same person in 2021 that she was in 2016. Ko remains as bright a light as you will find in sports: charming, charismatic, unfailingly friendly and eternally polite. The smile hasn’t faded, and the waves are as genuine as ever.
But as a golfer, she is barely recognizable. The 2016 Lydia, a teenager who held the most “youngest ever” records in the history of the game, was on top of the Rolex Rankings despite being relatively short off the tee. She hit more hybrids into par-4s in a round than other players did in an entire tournament. But her precision and deft touch around the greens was magical. She was Mozart with a sand wedge and DaVinci with a putter.
Five years and a lifetime worth of scare tissue later, she is still an artist around the greens. But she is no longer short. Ko is more athletic in stature and her golf swing is faster and more efficient now than at any time in her career.
However, she doesn’t think in those terms.
“I don't think it feels that different,” she said when asked to compare her silver medal in 2016 to this bronze in 2021. “In the sense that I'm very honored and privileged to be able to bring a medal for New Zealand. I think we just broke our last record, which in 2016 I think that was the most medals we had (ever won) within New Zealand. A couple of days ago we just broke it. Then for me to be able to add to that is obviously a huge honor. Yes, I wish I could have brought a different color medal, but overall, just to bring a medal for New Zealand, I hope everyone back home is proud. I felt so much love and support from them. So, this is for New Zealand.”
Ko, who is one year older than Nelly Korda but with a lifetime of experience and wisdom, had nothing but praise for the new Olympic champion and world No. 1.
“I think it's really hard to compare what one player's gone through and what one player's done to another (player),” Ko said. “I think at the end of the day, how Nelly has played all season has been absolutely amazing. Winning three times this year and then on top of that being a gold medalist here in Tokyo and a bunch of Top-10s and all that, I could go on and on and on. I think it's been super impressive. I was just talking to Nelly earlier today about how I’ve played with her quite a lot this year. I’ll play with Nelly and a few weeks after I'll play with Jess. Then I'll be back with Nelly. So, I've been getting the Korda sandwich. But I love it.
“Sometimes I'm playing with them and I feel like I'm spectating. It's super impressive and I'm sure she's going to keep going on this hot stretch. I think it's great for women's golf.
“It's not easy playing as the (world) No. 1 in the Olympics,” Ko added. “I did that in Rio. For her to fight through that kind of pressure and expectations, and to end up winning the gold (medal), I think it shows what kind of class player she is.
“So, yeah, I'm sure this is the start of many more majors and many more wins for Nelly.”
As for Lydia Ko, this was another momentous week in a career that has already been rich and full, if not yet golden.