NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Faced with big stakes and her toughest opponent, Jin Young Ko produced a near-perfect performance on Sunday to earn the LPGA Player of the Year award and surpass Nelly Korda for the title.
In the CME Group Tour Championship, Ko started with a 25-foot birdie putt and never looked back. She shot 30 on the front nine and finished with the lowest round of the event, a 9-under 63, to beat Nasa Hataoka of Japan by one stroke.
Ko was so consistent that she hit all 63 greens at Tiburon Golf Club in regulation.
“I’m not sure what occurred out there,” said Ko, who has been dealing with a left wrist issue since May, which has reduced her practice time leading up to the tournament. “This week was incredible.”
Aside from the $1.5 million prize, this victory came with a lot of perks.
The 26-year-old South Korean needed to win the tournament to win the LPGA Player of the Year honor, which he did for the second time in three years.
“I tried to play aggressively, and I got it, and I’m really delighted,” Ko said of his victory over Korda. “She won a gold medal and had a tremendous victory.” This year, she added three more victories to her tally. She hits it straight and far, and she puts it so well. I was a little luckier than she was, therefore I got this.”
Korda’s successful year as a major champion and Olympic gold medalist came to a halt with a thud. She struggled to keep up with Ko early on and was never a genuine threat until he drew away on the back nine. The 23-year-old American finished in a tie for sixth place, six strokes back.
“Today was the Jin Young Ko show, and it was really great to see,” Korda added. “All day I just sat back and watched.”
For the second year in a row, Ko won the season finale, and it took everything she had. She began the final round in a four-way tie for the lead with Korda, Hataoka, and Celine Boutier, but rapidly pulled away with four birdies on the first six holes to leave everyone in her wake.
Hataoka made a pair of birdies early on to remain with her, but her chances were harmed on the par-5 sixth hole. Ko was 15 yards over the green when he shot a brilliant pitch into birdie range. Hataoka was right of the green and bogeyed after a careful pitch into the bunker.
Hataoka never got closer to the lead on the back nine than two strokes, finishing birdie-birdie for the second consecutive round. As the runner-up, she received $480,000.
On Thursday, Ko’s drive fell into a bunker on the lip on the ninth hole, and she could only blast out to the fairway, resulting in bogey. She hadn’t missed a green at Tiburon since then.
Ko put forth a persistent effort, identifying a target and striking it, then relying on his pure putting stroke to finish the job.
Lydia Ko won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average with a final round of 64. Jin Young Ko and Korda had lower averages, but they fell short of the needed 70 rounds.
The champion finished with a score of 23-under 265 to win for the 12th time in her career. LPGA Hall Of Fame membership demands at least 27 points, and her ultimate goal is to achieve that goal. In her four years on the LPGA Tour, she racked up 17 points by winning and being voted player of the year.
It was a scorching end to the year for Ko, who, in addition to her wrist injury, had to deal with the death of her grandmother in the spring, which left her short on motivation.
She stumbled upon it in a huge manner. Ko has won five of the previous nine tournaments she has competed in on the LPGA Tour, making her the first woman to win five times since 2016.