NAPLES, FLORIDA | She might be the most overlooked and underrated world No. 1 in history, not because avid followers of the LPGA Tour don’t know her, but because if you say the name “Ko” to the drive-by golf fan, most think you’re talking about Lydia.
But what if you were told that Jin Young Ko, the 24-year-old runaway player of the year for 2019, a two-time major champion this season and the near-certain winner of the Vare Trophy for low stroke average, has a chance at the CME Group Tour Championship to become only the second player in history after Ariya Jutanugarn to sweep all the LPGA Tour awards while being the No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings?
Would you raise your eyebrows and say, “Hmm,” if you learned that Ko has such a huge lead in earnings that even with the Tour Championship boasting the largest first-place check in women’s golf history, $1.5 million, the planets would have to align perfectly for anyone to pass her? Would you furrow your brows and say, “Jin Who?” if you learned that Ko could become one of only a handful of players in history to win rookie of the year one year and player of the year the next?
If you answered yes to either of those questions, you are in for a treat. Ko is the daughter of a former boxer, and she won five times on the Korean LPGA Tour before she could pay off all the debt her family incurred giving her a chance in golf. She tears up to this day when telling that story. Since those days, she has won six more KLPGA events and six times on the LPGA Tour, including two majors this year – the ANA Inspiration and the Evian Championship. She ran away with the Rolex Annika Major Award and arrived in Naples with a ridiculous 1,241-point lead over Brooke Henderson in the season-long Race to the CME Globe.
And yet, when you Google images of Jin Young Ko, the first one to pop up is one of Lydia.
Some of her relative anonymity might be based on language. Jin Young’s English is what your Korean might be if you were thrown into a high-intensity job requiring a quarter-million miles of travel and told, oh by the way, learn this non-Romantic language in your spare time. Still, her English is good. Her rookie-of-the-year speech at the LPGA awards banquet a year ago was the best of the night. But conversations with her aren’t fluid or natural. There are long, uncomfortable pauses as she searches for the right word, anxiety etched on her face. Even the best English speakers among Korean players struggle with verb tense and prepositions, the connective tissue of language that rarely clicks between East and West.
The language barrier was one of the things that worried short-game coach Gareth Raflewski when Ko asked him to help her. Would she understand enough for him to help? A year later, the two were on the putting green at Tiburón Golf Club in Naples sharing a funny story, a coach encouraging his player with the one word that needed little translation: “Perfect.”
That word describes a lot more than Ko’s putting stroke. She went 114 holes without a bogey in 2019, the longest known streak in professional golf, man or woman, surpassing the old record of 110 holes set by Tiger Woods in 2000. She hits nearly 80 percent of her greens in regulation – first on the LPGA Tour – and averages fewer than 30 putts per round. She also leads in percentage of rounds in the 60s.
“She has a very good mental approach to the game,” said Karen Stupples, a past major champion who is now an analyst for Golf Channel. “She compartmentalizes things very well. I think she definitely can continue this (dominance).
“The worrying thing is all the extra stuff that goes on when you become No. 1, when you become this dominant, all the extra attention you get and the extra fatigue that comes along with that. I think toward the end of the season she has shown a few signs of being a bit tired. When I watched her in Korea (at the BMW Ladies Championship) there was tiredness there.
“But the technique and everything she has going for her is really good. She has a good group of people around her coaching-wise. I think her mentality is one that could succeed throughout. She’s very happy in that spot.”
Patience with Ko always yields something wonderful, a story you didn’t know, an insight into her character that takes your breath away.
Fatigue can lead to injury, and Ko is nursing a bad left ankle. She’s not sure how she did it. “Just a practice swing in Taiwan, No. 18 from the tee, and then I couldn’t swing again,” Ko said. She subsequently withdrew from the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA tournament, a decision that still brings a tear to her eye as she describes it. And she works her lower lip as she recounts the injection she received in her Achilles tendon before coming to Naples.
But patience with Ko always yields something wonderful, a story you didn’t know, an insight into her character that takes your breath away.
Did you have a favorite non-Korean golfer when you were growing up?
“Oh, yeah, I like Brad Faxon a lot,” she said.
Brad Faxon? A 24-year-old Korean woman grew up watching … Brad Faxon?
“He’s such a great putter,” she explained. “And then I met him at the U.S. (Women’s) Open last year and I had handshake with Brad Faxon before the round. Then I one-putted Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and told my caddie, I don’t want to wash my hand.
“Since I was 15, I watched YouTube of his putting stroke every day. So my putting was really good when I was 18 and 19 years old.”
Now players look at Ko’s stroke, a rhythmic release that always seems to die every putt in or near the hole.
“Perfect,” Raflewski said again as another putt died right over the front edge.
The list of players who have won player of the year, the Vare Trophy and the money title in the same year is short and distinguished. In addition to Jutanugarn, who did it last year, Lorena Ochoa did it in 2006, ’07 and ’08 when she was dominating the women’s game. But Ochoa won only two majors in her career, the 2007 Ricoh Women’s British Open and the 2008 Kraft Nabisco Championship. Ko has won two this year.
Annika Sörenstam won the money title, the Vare Trophy and player of the year in 1998, 2001, ’02 and ’05. But in only one of those seasons (2005) did Sörenstam, the most dominant player in a generation, win multiple majors.
Others who have swept the three honors include Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez and Karrie Webb. Being mentioned in the same company is extraordinary. If she keeps it up, Jin Young Ko won’t have to worry about being mistaken for anyone.
Jin Young Ko was the LPGA rookie of the year last season and is the runaway 2019 player of the year. Photo: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
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