NAPLES, FLORIDA | Remember 1979 when Jack Nicklaus didn’t win a tournament, and everyone said the Era of the Bear was over? Yeah, it was kind of like that. But the redemption of Jack’s two major-championship wins in 1980 was nothing compared with what Lydia Ko felt here Sunday. Or so we assume since Jack didn’t cry.
The exclamation point of Ko’s comeback, the moment that precipitated the fountain of tears, was a tap-in par on the 18th hole at Tiburón Golf Club. That was fitting given that almost every putt she hit at the CME Group Tour Championship, make or miss, was the perfect speed. She rarely had more than a foot or two for par. The 4 inches left on the final hole was typical of the week. Ko capped her third victory of 2022 with the easiest-looking 17-under-par total you’ve ever seen.
In so doing, she won the largest paycheck in women’s golf – $2 million – along with the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year and the Vare Trophy with the second-lowest scoring average in LPGA Tour history (68.988). Annika Sörenstam holds the record at 68.70 in 2002. They are the only two players in history to average under 69 shots for a season.
But Ko’s redemption is even sweeter than the trophies and records. In the age of Twitter, her career obituary had been written dozens of times. First, armchair experts said she was done in 2017 when she switched coaches and equipment and dropped from No. 1 to No. 59 in the world rankings. Then, after one lone win in 2018, Ko supposedly was done again when she went through another series of caddie and coaching changes.
“Golf is very relatable to life in general. ... I’m excited with where I am in both.”
Two seasons passed without a victory, although there were more than a few near misses. Those who paid attention to the women’s game were talking about another Ko – Jin Young – who had ascended to the top of the Rolex Rankings and seemed like the next big thing.
But quietly and confidently, Lydia got stronger, longer and healthier. She also began swinging like the 15-year-old version of herself, only faster. No longer the player who dinked it down the middle and made a living hitting hybrids close, Ko hit tee shots of 306 and 303 yards, respectively, on her final two holes of the CME. That’s common for her these days.
Two victories in 2022, one early in the season and one late, bracketed 11 other top-10 finishes. She also led the tour in sand saves, putts per green in regulation and rounds in the 60s.
“Golf is very relatable to life in general,” Ko said once the tears dried and she’d had a moment to think. “I’m excited with where I am in both. And I’m glad that I won this (CME Group Tour Championship) again so we can update that photo of the first time I won it in 2014 wearing those big glasses. I don’t miss cleaning those lenses, that’s for sure.”
In addition to a great event and champion, the LPGA Tour also announced its 2023 schedule last week. The big news was the milestone money total, stretching north of the nine-figure mark for the first time in history. Total purses will be $101.4 million over 33 events, not counting the Solheim Cup and the return of the International Crown.
After a limited-field opening that starts with the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions – an event filled with tour winners from the past two years plus a bunch of retired baseball players and one-off actors and comedians – it’s off to Asia before the first full-field start in March with a return to Arizona. The tour is adding a Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain outside of Phoenix, followed by the Dio Implant L.A. Open in Palos Verdes, California, and the Hawaii event sponsored by Lotte. Then a compressed major-championship schedule cranks up with the Chevron Championship, now played the third week of April at Carlton Woods on the Woodlands side of Houston.
That’s when the tour hits full throttle with 11 events from the first of April until the end of June, culminating in back-to-back majors with the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltustrol Lower and the U.S. Women’s Open in early July at Pebble Beach. As usual, most of August is spent in Europe and then a trip back to Canada for the CP Women’s Open. From there, the 2023 schedule mirrors 2022: Portland, Cincinnati, Arkansas, Texas, with the Solheim Cup in Spain squeezed in the middle, followed by the fall Asia swing and two events in Florida to close out the year.
Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan called these announcements “big moments for us, and I think that's the evolution of where the LPGA is going. Then we say, ‘well, how is that affecting our players directly?’ When you look across the official money list, how are our players performing and how much money are they making versus what they made last year? In every category, they're making more money.”
Ko ended the year with $4,364,403, the second-most in a season, $591 shy of what Lorena Ochoa earned in 2007. Minjee Lee finished second this year with $3.8 million.
For perspective, Nicklaus made $5.7 million for his career.
“They're inspiring numbers for women's sports,” Marcoux Samaan said. “I think it elevates our platform to talk about the growth of women's sports and the growth of women as strong leaders.”
No one has grown more, shown better leadership, or inspired more young people than Lydia Ko.
Comebacks build character and come with an avalanche of emotions. But in the case of Lydia Ko, the tears of redemption on Sunday were shared by those who have known her for all of these years.
Top: Lydia Ko embraces her station in life on and off the course these days.