It’s easy to forget. Not just how good she was but how gracious and bubbly and inspiring Lydia Ko was when she dominated the women’s game and set almost every “youngest ever” record on the books. Back then, as a teenager, Ko was like a reincarnation of Arnold Palmer – charismatic, charming, witty and like a long-lost friend to every person she met.
She also was the kind of player who got mentioned in the same breath with Tiger Woods and Annika Sörenstam. She is the youngest person to win an event on any professional tour; the youngest to win on the LPGA Tour; the youngest to win a major and the youngest to win two majors; the youngest player, man or woman, to reach No. 1 in the world rankings; the youngest player to reach 10 wins, 12 wins, 13 wins, 14 wins. The lists go on.
And then, suddenly, it stopped.
After a four-win season in 2016 (including a come-from-behind victory at the ANA Inspiration), Ko’s game hit a snag. She went from self-assured to searching. And she plummeted in the world rankings as quickly as she had risen. There was only one win between July 2016 and April 2021, the Mediheal Classic at Lake Merced in San Francisco in 2018, a course she loves and where she has had great success. In the meantime, she changed all her hard goods once, golf balls twice, instructors five times, and caddies more times than anyone could count. As a result, she was roundly criticized, sometimes in vicious and personal ways.
Throughout it all, Ko took the high road. Up or down, win or lose, she never dodged a question, never snapped at a critic, and never, ever blew off a fan. She led the 2018 Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions with nine holes to play, blew the lead with two bad tee shots, and proceeded to sign every autograph and pose for every picture afterward.
Last year at the Marathon Classic, she held a five-shot lead deep into the final round and blew it, making a double bogey on the last hole to lose to Danielle Kang. Afterward, she answered every question and wished everyone safe travels before leaving Toledo, Ohio.
With almost every breath, she has said the same things: “I’m getting close. ... It’s about focusing on my process. ... Each week I’m learning something. ... It’s not about returning to the old Lydia; it’s about being the best Lydia I can be today.”
On Sunday, the best Lydia finished the drill. Ko shot an astounding 28-under par, the second-lowest 72-hole score in LPGA Tour history, to win the Lotte Championship in Hawaii by a whopping seven strokes. Runners-up included a murderer’s row of greats: LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park, a winner last month at the Kia Classic; world No. 4 Nelly Korda, who won the Drive On Championship Lake Nona in February; and world No. 3 and 2020 LPGA Player of the Year Sei Young Kim. The only person without a win in the top two was Leona Maguire, formerly the top-ranked amateur in the world.
On Sunday morning in the starter’s tent, Ko wrote the words “trust” and “conviction” on her pin sheet. Later that afternoon, no one doubted that she was back.
“There were times when it was hard,” Ko said. “It’s not about other people’s expectations, but when you put expectations on yourself and you feel like you’re not reaching it, I think I was putting more pressure on myself and doubting myself. I’ve been very fortunate to have a very supportive family and team and friends that have just built the confidence in me. It makes me grateful that I just have loving people around me that are just supporting me no matter what.
“But I think it’s that I was proving it to myself more than to anybody else. It takes away the doubt that I can do it.”