Lydia Ko has faced plenty of heat over the past couple years. The general questions surrounding her have been about why a teen sensation with 14 LPGA titles to her credit would change her coach, her equipment, her caddie—and why has it been two seasons since her last victory? Thankfully for her sanity, it sounds like she hasn’t been paying too much attention to all the critics.
And when she was faced with the chance to change the narrative, Ko stepped up. Five days after turning 21, the New Zealand resident celebrated by claiming her 15th LPGA title, a playoff victory over Minjee Lee at the MEDIHEAL Championship.
Ko didn’t just win, she won in style, making an eagle 3 on the first extra hole, the par-5 18th at Lake Merced Golf Club outside San Francisco after hitting her second shot from 234 yards to less than three feet.
The leader after each of the first three rounds, Ko was asked on Saturday night whether or not she felt pressure from people talking about if she's going to win again or not. Ko responded to the question saying, “I've been very distant from like press and media. No offense.”
It was a typical Ko response: honest, yet perfectly considerate.
The last time Ko had slept on a 54-hole lead was at the 2016 U.S. Open. The last time she had won was a week later at the Marathon Classic. Since that victory, Ko has changed her swing coaches, going from David Leadbetter to Gary Gilchrist to her current instructor, Ted Oh, who she began working with in early 2018. She changed her clubs, moving from Callaway to PXG. And she changed her caddie, multiple times. When all of these changes didn’t add up to continued dominance on tour, some questioned whether or not she had made the right choices.
But Ko stayed patient, confident, and relatively quiet about all of the adjustments.
During Sunday’s final round, the lead changed hands multiple times. Ko had started the day one stroke ahead of Jessica Korda. A cold putter kept Korda from making a charge (she'd finish with a Sunday 74). Meanwhile, early bogeys from Ko brought Lee, who started the day three strokes off the lead, into the mix. Lee made five birdies on the back nine to finish 12-under for the tournament, posting a closing 68.
After making the turn with a 38, Ko improved on the back nine and was sitting at 11 under for the tournament, playing in the group behind Lee. She watched as Lee made her birdie putt to finish at 12 under. That putt meant Ko had to make birdie to force a playoff.
Ko’s approach shot came up short on the short par 5, and her chip for eagle grazed the high side of the cup. She tapped in for birdie and a Sunday 71, and the two 21-year-olds went back to the 18th tee for the first playoff hole.
Each player headed into the playoff having had experience winning at Lake Merced in the past. Lee won the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior, where Ko had lost in her semifinal match. Ko won the Swinging Skirts LPGA event in 2014 and 2015 at Lake Merced.
Both put their drives in the fairway. Ko, with a 3-wood in her hands from 234 yards out, hit a towering shot over some branches that hung over the left side of the fairway. It hit in front of the green, rolled up and almost into the hole. Lee made birdie, but it wasn’t enough. Ko’s short eagle putt rolled in and she left the 18th green in tears.
After the win, Ko opened up more about what it felt like to play 43 starts without a win.
“I was frustrated because sometimes I would go into the Thursday feeling, Hey, I feel like I can actually play really well, and then miss the cut or shoot over par,” Ko said. “I think it was more frustration against myself from myself. I think sometimes self pressure is the biggest thing where you kind of put a lot of load on your shoulders. That’s what my mom actually said, hey, just clear your mind, just take away all the weight off your shoulders and just go out and play. That’s what I think I was able to do this week, which is always nice when you're kind of playing without fear and you're just out there freely.”