Jin Young Ko delivers big finish to win LPGA player of year

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Jin Young Ko, of Korea, right, holds the player of the year trophy along with LPGA Commissioner, Mollie Marcoux, left, after winning the LPGA Tour Championship golf tournament, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Naples, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — The stakes were high and the odds would have seemed long to anyone but Jin Young Ko.

Her only chance at LPGA player of the year was to win the CME Group Tour Championship. In her way was Nelly Korda, the No. 1 player in the world. If that wasn’t enough, Ko’s left wrist was ailing to the point she only took full swings with a gap wedge on the practice range.

And then she delivered a performance that was close to perfect.

Ko putted for birdie on every hole — she went the final 63 holes at Tiburon without missing a green in regulation — shot 30 on the front nine to seize control and closed with a 9-under 63 for the low round of the tournament and a one-shot victory.

For the victor, these were some serious spoils.

Ko won the richest prize in women’s golf at $1.5 million and overtook Korda to claim the LPGA’s biggest award as player of the year.

“I can’t believe I win this tournament again,” Ko said.

Ko opened with a 25-foot birdie putt that looked as easy as a tap-in, and she was on her way. She hit 7-iron to 8 feet for birdie on No. 3, took the lead for good with a wedge to 10 feet on the next hole and didn’t come close to a bogey.

She wound up winning by one shot over Nasa Hataoka of Japan, who never got closer than two shots on the back nine until a birdie on the final hole for a 64.

Ko couldn’t stop smiling on the 18th green when she collected the crystal trophy for winning the tournament and a silver trophy as player of the year. The win was worth $1.5 million. The award was worth even more to her.

“So proud of myself,” Ko said. “Player of the year, it’s cool. I would say player of the year is best. It’s really tough get to player of the year, especially this year with Nelly.”

Korda’s big year of becoming a major champion, an Olympic gold medalist and reaching No. 1 in the world ranking ended with a thud. The 23-year-old American couldn’t keep pace at the start and was never a serious factor when Ko pulled away on the back nine.

“It was the Jin Young Ko show today, and honestly, it was cool to see,” Korda said. “I just sat back and watched all day.”

Korda, whose four wins this year included the Women’s PGA Championship, closed with a 69 and tied for fifth, six shots behind.

“Nelly has great year, even gold medal, win major tournament, and three more wins this year. I feel a little said for Nelly,” Ko said. “But I was a little luckier than her.”

A little determination helped. Ko won the season finale for the second straight year, and this took all she had.

She started the final round in a four-way tie for the lead with Korda, Hataoka and Celine Boutier and quickly left everyone in her wake with four birdies on the opening six holes.

Hataoka tried to stay with her early with a pair of birdies, but her chances were damaged on the par-5 sixth hole. Ko was some 15 yards over the green and hit a beautiful pitch to tap-in range for birdie. Hataoka was right of the green and dumped a delicate pitch into the bunker, leading to bogey.

But she was the only one who challenged Ko. Hataoka earned $480,000 as the runner-up. She earned $594,000 as runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Open.

Ko first injured her left wrist in May from what she described as too much practice. She played on and it got worse, and she said earlier in the week she might have withdrawn if it wasn’t the last event of the year.

That made the performance even more remarkable. She never seemed to miss.

Ko’s tee shot on the ninth hole Thursday went into a bunker near the lip, and she could only blast out to the fairway, leading to bogey. That was the last time she missed a green at Tiburon.

It was a relentless performance. She picked a target. She hit the shot. And then she let pure putting stroke take care of the rest.

Lydia Ko closed with a 64 to wrap up the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. Jin Young Ko and Korda had lower averages but did not meet the required minimum of 70 rounds.

The South Korean star finished at 23-under 265 for her 12th career victory. The LPGA Hall of Fame is her ultimate goal, which requires 27 points. She picked up one point for winning and one point as player of the year, giving her 17 points in just four years on the LPGA Tour.

It was a blazing finish to the year for Ko, who along with her wrist injury had to cope with the loss of her grandmother in the spring that left her briefly searching for motivation.

She found it in a big way. Ko won five of the last nine tournaments she played on the LPGA Tour, and became the first five-time winner on the LPGA since 2016.

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