As the talent on the LPGA Tour has grown younger, the depth of competition has grown, too. Just ask Lydia Ko and Atthaya Thitikul, two of the most prolific young stars to have ever played the women’s game, who went head-to-head at the BMW Ladies Championship.
Ko was once a teenage phenom who made history as the youngest to ever win on the LPGA Tour at the age of 15. On Sunday, the now 25-year-old came from one stroke back to overtake the tour’s newest teen sensation in 19-year-old Thitikul, who owns her own eye-popping record as the youngest to ever win a professional golf tournament at 14-years of age.
“At all of these championships, the score for the cut is getting lower, the score to win is getting lower,” said Ko, who won at 21-under par for the Championship. “If you have one okay round, that puts you so much further back compared to maybe before where that could have been okay, and you could have still won. The level of play and the level of women's golf right now is so high that it's just really, really difficult to win.”
Ko was forced to summon a final round of 65 to overtake not just Thitikul, but a slew of eight other rookies who also finished in the top 20. For first-year members it's an accomplishment to merely earn a spot in the limited-field event in Korea, let alone to contend. And it’s taken one of Ko’s career best seasons, with two victories and 11 top-10 finishes to date to keep pace with the ever-increasing talent on the LPGA Tour.
“When I was No.1 (in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings), I had just more wins in that season. I don't think I've had as many top 10s,” said Ko, who won five times in 2015 en route to becoming world No.1. “I think every season is really hard to compare because not only am I trying to improve, but every single player is, like, trying to improve, and I think that's why you can see it by the score.”
Expect to see low scores abound as the Tour’s next stop features a 54-hole sprint to the finish at the TOTO Japan Classic. Beginning November 3rd, the event makes its return to the LPGA's schedule for the first time since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the event wasn’t played on the LPGA’s schedule the past two years, as a co-sanctioned event with the JLPGA, it was still part of the JLPGA’s regular season, with Jiyai Shin winning in 2020 and Ayaka Furue, a rookie this year on the LPGA Tour, returning as defending champion.
The TOTO Japan Classic kicks off a thrilling, three-week stretch that, following the conclusion in Japan, will see the Tour return to the United States for the final two events of the year - the Pelican Women’s Championship followed by the CME Group Tour Championship - where the season’s biggest honors will be awarded.
And with just three events remaining in the season, the Race for the CME Globe, Rolex Player of the Year, Vare Trophy, and Money Title could soon become a toe-to-toe competition between Ko and Thitikul.
Ko leads the Race to the CME Globe standings with Thitikul a close second. Ko tops the Rolex Player of the Year race with Thitikul in fourth. Ko leads the Tour in scoring average and Thittikul is third. Both Ko and Thitikul are ranked in the top 5 on the Money List and with a $2 million payday at the season-ending event, the race is wide open. Thitikul will also be chasing history of her own. She leads the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year standings and will try to become just the third player to win both rookie and Player of the Year honors in a single season.
As the competition on the LPGA Tour has grown, so have the thrills. And the final three events of the LPGA Tour season are shaping up to be some of the most exciting of the year as the Tour’s youngest stars vie for the biggest prizes of the season.