Lydia Ko ended a 1,084-day victory drought with an absolute dart show at the Lotte Championship. Call it a breakthrough, a comeback, a resurgence, a feel-good win for anyone who loves golf.
Ko didn’t just win at Kapolei, she owned the place, and gosh was it fun. When it was over, Ko said she took inspiration from recent drought-ending victories by Jordan Spieth (1,351 days) and Hideki Matsuyama (1,344 days).
“That kind of gave me a little bit of hope saying maybe I could follow that trend,” said Ko, who won the Lotte by seven strokes and now owns 16 LPGA titles. The 23-year-old Kiwi’s last victory came on April 29, 2018, at the LPGA Mediheal Championship.
Ko finished the Lotte at 28-under 260 thanks to a closing 65. She’s 38 under par in her last 90 holes.
After that closing 62 at the ANA Inspiration, the lowest final round in LPGA major history, it’s no surprise to see Ko carry that momentum into Lotte, though it is a relief. The winningest teenager in the history of the LPGA took a dip in her early 20s, winning only once from July 2016 to this week on Oahu. An onslaught of changes drew criticism as Ko jumped from one instructor and caddie to the next. Even her physique has transformed several times.
Ko credits instructor Sean Foley with helping to resurrect her confidence.
“I just keep trying to point her inwards,” said Foley while walking around Augusta National last week.
It’s a matter of letting go of the wheel, he said, and tapping into what’s deep inside her. Playing with freedom. It was important that Ko didn’t try to force a victory, he said, quoting a Buddhist phrase that the bird doesn’t come to the hand that’s grasping for it.
Ko entered the final round in Hawaii with a one-shot lead over Nelly Korda after setting the 54-hole scoring record for the Lotte with a 21-under 195. It marked the 15th time Ko had shared the lead after 54 holes. She has now converted seven of those leads into victories.
Golf Channel analyst Karen Stupples noted that for years many have wondered if Ko would ever get back to form that saw her dominate the tour with 14 titles as a bespectacled teen.
“This version of Lydia Ko could potentially be even better,” Stupples said.
LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park, who is inching closer to reclaiming the No. 1 ranking, closed with a 63 to vault into a share of second with Sei Young Kim, rookie Leona Maguire and Korda.
After needing only 25 putts in each of her first three rounds, Korda took 32 putts in her final round. The ice-cold putter took considerable pressure off Ko, who built her lead to five through 10 holes.
Since reconnecting with trainer Craig Davies, Ko has gained 15 pounds of muscle. Davies said she goes at it so hard in the gym that they have to tell her to scale back.
“I wouldn’t be able to walk after what she does,” said Davies, who works with a number of PGA Tour players, including Gary Woodland and Cameron Champ.
One of the attributes that separates Ko from most, Davies said, is that she’s not afraid to look silly trying something new, though she usually catches on quite quickly. Ko takes a holistic approach to her training, he said, and targets weaknesses.
A more athletic-looking Ko has focused on balance and body awareness, specifically being able to hold her form when she starts to get fatigued late in a tournament.
A longer and stronger Ko has enjoyed a remarkable consistency of late.
On Sunday at the ANA, Foley said one of his other students, Justin Rose, texted him updates when he was away from a TV.
“It’s the first time in a long time I had goosebumps doing my job,” said Foley of Ko’s white-hot start at Mission Hills.
Foley tells Ko that it’s not enough to be committed to shots. He wants conviction.
“I can feel conviction,” said Foley, circling his heart with his hand.
Ko admitted to not sleeping well going into the final round of the Marathon Classic last summer, where she squandered a a five-shot lead with six holes to play. Ko also said that she has, at times, wondered if she’d ever get back to the winner’s circle.
“I slept great last night,” said Ko. “I just said, ‘Hey, my fate is already chosen.”