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LPGA

Jin Young Ko wins Founders Cup for third time after Minjee Lee’s unexpected three putt

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Mike Stobe

It took a playoff to settle the battle between the last two LPGA Tour Cognizant Founders Cup champions Sunday at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J. After Minjee Lee, the defending champion, shockingly three-putted for a bogey from inside 20 feet on the first playoff hole, Jin Young Ko made par to earn her third win at the tournament and 15th career LPGA victory.

Ko's bogey-free five-under 67, the best on the course by two shots, overcame a four-shot deficit to Lee at the start of the round. At a tournament created in 2011 to honor the LPGA's original 13 founders, it was fitting it went to extra holes at 13 under par.

"I shoot really, really good, and I feel really good, and it's an honor to get third trophy [at the] Cognizant Founders Cup," Ko said. "Can't wait to play next year."

Ko drew inspiration for her comeback from watching highlights of compatriot Sungjae Im's victory in South Korea. Im won despite trailing by five going into the final round. Ko thought the Upper Montclair Country Club course was challenging, but if she focused only on herself, she might emulate his success.

Ko caught Lee quickly, taking first place briefly with a birdie on the seventh following the Australian's lead sinking into the pond with a double bogey on the par-3 sixth after chunking her tee shot into the water. Lee and Ko oscillated between sitting tied or a one-shot lead for the Australian until the par-3 15th. Then, the 54-hole leader's birdie regained her opening two-stroke lead and seemingly closed the door with three to play.

Ko, however, wasn't done. She got up and down from the bunker on the 17th for a par save, then birdied the last, her fourth birdie of the week on No. 18 to finish at 13 under. Ko's 67, her second bogey-free round of the week, beat Sunday's scoring average by more than seven strokes.

Lee's bogey on 17 brought her back to a tie with Ko. A par on the last following a near birdie chip-in resulted in the No. 6 player in the Rolex Women's World Rankings carding a final-round 71. After losing the playoff in dispiriting fashion, she's now 1-3 in her career when playing extra holes.

"Obviously, I would've liked to have won, but looking back at my whole year and just kind of assessing where I am, how I did this week, I think a lot more positives than negatives," Lee said.

Lee's only playoff victory was her first major title at the 2021 Evian Championship. Ko moves to 2-0 in playoffs for her career, winning her first at the 2021 BMW Ladies Championship. Playoffs have been a trend lately on tour. Sunday marked the fifth playoff in the last six LPGA tournaments, with Ruoning Yin's maiden victory at the LA Open in early April was the only tournament won outright since the LPGA returned stateside in March.

Ashleigh Buhai, 34, finished in third at 10 under with a closing 70. It was the South African's best finish since her maiden LPGA victory at last August's AIG Women's Open. Buhai is continuing her consistent 2023 campaign with her fourth top 10 in eight starts this year.

Ko's victory made it her third Founders Cup win at three different courses. In 2019, she won in Phoenix at Wildfire Golf Club. In 2021, she defended her title after the event's postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 at Mountain Ridge Country Club in West Caldwell, N.J.

The continued odd-year success earned Ko her 20th LPGA Hall of Fame point, making her one of five active players in the 20s alongside Lydia Ko (25), Laura Davies (25), Yani Tseng (23) and Cristie Kerr (22). In an event honoring the tour’s legends, Ko took another step toward joining them by closing in on a childhood dream of making the LPGA's Hall of Fame.

"My big goal is getting the Hall of Fame long time ago. I planned a long time ago … I will do my best in the future and practice hard, harder than this." Ko said.