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Jin Young Ko Soars to Victory in the LPGA Tour Finale

The stage was set for a heavyweight showdown between Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda, writes Morning Read's Dan O'Neill, but the 26-year-old South Korean had other ideas.
Jin Young Ko is the 2021 LPGA Player of the Year.

Jin Young Ko is the 2021 LPGA Player of the Year.

The LPGA had a good thing going … but Jin Young Ko was just too good.

Going into the weekend, the women’s tour announced a new schedule for 2022 that includes record-setting purses (nearly $87 million) and prestigious golf venues, like Muirfield and Congressional Country Club.

“The stage is set for 2022 to be one of the most exciting years in the history of the LPGA Tour,” commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan said in a statement.

True that. At the same time, the stage was set for the current season to produce one of the most exciting conclusions the league has known. We’re talking heavyweight showdown, the two biggest stars in the LPGA universe, wo-mano et wo-mano with the whole enchilada on the line.

We’re talking Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. We’re talking Nelly Korda vs. Jin Young Ko and the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship, aka the “Nutcracker in Naples.”

If you haven’t paid attention, the two have played musical chairs with the women’s No. 1 ranking in recent months. They came into the week as the only four-time winners on the circuit. They came by Sunday’s last tee time as part of a four-way tie for the lead, the only players on the four-way street with a chance to end up as the Player of the Year.

In sports, you rarely see a more spectacular setup. At the same time, it’s even more rare when the outcome of the affair matches the anticipation. The LPGA had a good week, no question, it just didn’t end with fireworks. Every party has one and this one was no different. Ko just wouldn’t Ko- operate, she became the party pooper.

While she was dealing with some pain in her left wrist, she was feeling no pain on her scorecard, and leaving no doors unlocked. Ko, who ran off a string of seven birdies during Saturday’s third round, birdied three of the first four in the final trip, spread nine birdies around the grounds, and pulled a Road Runner on the WiIe E. Coyote crowd with a Sunday 63.

You want consistency? The score was Ko’s 24th in the 60s over her last 25 competitive rounds.

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“I don’t know what happened out there,” said Ko, who said she didn’t practice all week because of her wrist. “This week was amazing.”

On the amazing journey, she leapfrogged Korda once more as the No. 1 player in the women’s world. She slam-dunked the Rolex Player of the Year award, and she banked $1.5 million with her fifth win of the season. The drama wasn’t what it might have been, but the all-or-nothing outcome it promised was fulfilled. Ko ran the table — game, set match.

Korda, whose season included a major championship and an Olympic gold medal, couldn’t be faulted for her final-round effort. Her 69 was her fourth round in the 60s during the championship, and eighth in succession over two events. She just couldn’t catch up with Ko’s fastball.

Nasa Hataoka finished just one shot back, but she needed birdies on the last two holes, and needed a 64 on her card to do it. No one could keep pace with Ko, and no one could have anticipated she might finish this season with all the wins and all the marbles.

Earlier this season, she seriously considered turning in her LPGA card and going back to her home in Seoul, South Korea. Her grandmother fell ill, and then died in March. Unable to travel to be with her, Ko had to say goodbye over a Zoom call. Had she been home, playing on the Korean version of the LPGA Tour, she could have been with her grandmother. From a distance, the loss was even more devastating.

"I would say I don't really want to play golf on this tour," Ko said last week. "Yeah, because if I did play in KLPGA, I could meet (with) her. But this tour — I love this tour — but it's too far from Korea to here. So I couldn't get to Korea before, when she passed away. That's first time I really don't want to play on LPGA Tour."

Instead of quitting, Ko leaned on her grandma for support: "If I missed a lot of putts, after the tournament she called me, 'Why did you do that? More focus on the putting green and we've made it.'

“So I tried to keep practicing hard for putting, and I won. I win a lot of tournaments.”

She won three times in September, once more in October and now, with everything on the line, she won again. She hit all 14 fairways, she hit all 18 greens. She needed only 28 putts and she pulled the guts out of the anticipated grudge fight with Korda.

What the LPGA finale lacked in theater, it made up for in dynamic execution. Ko turned the heavyweight bout into a lopsided laugher, and she did her grandma proud.