Lydia Ko earns emotional, drought-breaking win in playoff

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Lydia Ko earns emotional, drought-breaking win in playoff

LPGA Tour

Lydia Ko earns emotional, drought-breaking win in playoff

DALY CITY, Calif. – Lydia Ko has a tattoo on her right wrist with the dates from her first LPGA victory as a professional – April 27, 2014 – in Roman Numerals. That memorable victory came at Lake Merced Golf Club, where she has now amassed three LPGA titles. After Ko heroically stuffed a 3-wood from 231 yards to 2 ½ feet for eagle, defeating Australia’s Minjee Lee on the first playoff hole at the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship to end a 22-month victory drought, it begs the question: Is there room on the left wrist?

“I don’t think I cried at the other 14 (LPGA victories) and I cried like four times in the span of two minutes, which is kind of embarrassing,” said Ko. “Every time I’d see my sister I cried; every time I saw my mom I cried; and then Ted (Oh), my coach, was crying so I cried again … God get ahold of yourself. I think it was emotional because they’ve been through it with me.”

Former No. 1 So Yeon Ryu, a friend and admirer of Ko, offered a measured explanation for the scene around the 18th green:

“A lot of people start to talk about what’s wrong with Lydia Ko? She changed her coach, she changed her caddie, she changed her clubs. A lot of people just talking about Lydia in such a negative way. But because she’s such a nice person, she never really said anything against that. So I feel like she’s just been holding all the pressure by herself. That’s the thing that’s really amazing to see.”

Ko, a winner on the LPGA at age 15, hadn’t won a tournament in 43 starts. She was unwavering in her positivity throughout the drought, never placing blame or shaming the media for questioning her moves, and there were many. Not once did she reveal any dark moments. Older sister, Sura, however, knew better.

“I read it on her face,” said Sura. “In her eyes. I can feel it.”

Sura has traveled alongside Ko for most of her professional career, acting as her road manager. Ko’s mother Tina has been there too, packing snacks, watching every shot on the range and inside the ropes like it’s her job. Because it is. Ko’s father hasn’t been to an LPGA event this year. He’s back in South Korea looking after their houses, Sura said. In three weeks Sura will marry Anthony Kim, a former agent on tour who worked tournament operations at the MEDIHEAL, on Jeju Island in South Korea.

Lydia has literally grown up in the public eye. On Tuesday, she turned 21 and celebrated with a handful of LPGA players and a couple of friends who flew in from South Korea and New Zealand. Sura organized the surprise visit, and Ko said it marked the first time in a decade that she celebrated a birthday with friends who weren’t golfers. She nearly cried on the range Monday when she spotted them.

Sura, however, won’t be by Ko’s side forever. She plans to whittle down the number of events she goes to year by year. She sees a day coming when Ko won’t travel with her mother, either. Right now though the 21-year-old doesn’t have more than a learner’s permit, so the family fills in many gaps for the one-time dominant prodigy.

The family’s goal these past few years, Sura said, was to set a good foundation.

“I think her golden time hasn’t arrived yet,” she noted, pointing to 24 to 27 years old as the time when Ko’s mental and physical maturity might lead to her best golf.

Because Ko won so many events in a short period of time – 12 times in 27 months – and nearly everything she accomplished was history-making, the sweeping changes she made to her team and equipment caused an avalanche of chatter. Particularly when the winning stopped. Ko, who had dropped down to No. 18 in the world, spent 104 weeks at No. 1.

Sura boiled down the coaching changes to David Leadbetter being too academic and Gary Gilchrist too simplistic. In Ted Oh, they hoped to find a happy medium. Ko, a fantastic feel player who once won on autopilot, got bogged down in information overload.

Oh started with Ko in the offseason and felt the pressure.

“It was getting to a point where I was started to feel bad,” he said. “She was doing everything I asked her, and we weren’t getting the results. We just tried to be patient, patient, patient.”

And then bam! Ko hit one of the most clutch 3-woods in LPGA history, negotiating a tree down the left side of the closing par 5 and nestling it in close for eagle. For a moment, an albatross was in the picture.

“I think the best possible scenario happened,” she explained. “I saw the crowd reaction, and if the ball kicked left from where it landed, it could have gone in the bunker, which is the worst place to hit it for that pin position. For it to kick straight and be close and nice and tight up to that pin, everything that could have happened went the right way for me.”

At the trophy presentation on the 18th green, Ko, who won at Lake Merced in 2014 and ’15 and holds an honorary membership at the club, told fans they should consider renaming the city San Francis-Ko. The pro-Ko crowd erupted in delight.

A beaming Ko later walked into the media room and asked for the time. The Museum of Ice Cream closed at 8 p.m., and she was hoping to get there for a celebratory scoop.

And after that, well, Jessica Korda gave her a bottle of vodka for her birthday. Ko thought she might open that now that’s she’s 21. On Tuesday, Ko forgot to bring her ID to her birthday party and couldn’t get served, despite Sura’s suggestion that the bartender Google everyone at the table.

As for a new tattoo, Ko said this victory definitely deserves something, though it might be of the Sharpie variety.

“I could be (part of) the New Zealand Mafia if I had more tattoos,” she said, laughing.

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