For some, the beauty of the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year race is that it all comes down to simple math, and Jin Young Ko knew exactly what needed to be done to claim the award for a second time: win the CME Group Tour Championship.
The season-long race came down to the final round of the year, with the two best players in the world competing side-by-side in the final group. Ko delivered a stunning knock-out punch with a career-best 63 to win the tournament and clip World No. 1 Nelly Korda by 14 points to win the POY title.
It was a statement victory to end the first chapter of what’s hopefully a long-term rivalry between the pair. Ko, who is the first South Korean player to win the POY twice, won five LPGA titles this year to Korda’s four.
“I feel a little sad to Nelly,” said Ko, “but I was a little luckier than her.”
The tour hasn’t seen a season like this—with two players going back and forth—since Ariya Jutanugarn and Lydia Ko won five and four times, respectively, in 2016.
“They have two very different games,” said Lydia Ko, who said she felt like a third wheel playing alongside the pair in Round 1 of the CME. “Even though their strengths might be similar, their games are very different.
“I think it just shows so much talent is out here. Doesn’t take one type of player to be so dominant. It can be very different.”
The first half of the year no doubt belonged to Korda, who claimed her first major title at the KPMG Women’s PGA as well as Olympic gold in Tokyo. The gold medal doesn’t count toward Player of the Year, however, as it’s not an official LPGA event. There are some who believe this should change.
Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko at the Taiwan Swinging Skirts LPGA at Miramar Golf Country Club on Oct. 31, 2019, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
Ko played in 19 official LPGA events this season to Korda’s 17, giving herself more opportunities to collect points. Only top-10 finishes earn points, and they’re worth double at the majors. Ko led the tour with 13 top 10s this season to Korda’s 10.
Ko’s consistency in the second half of the season was downright legendary. Her streak of 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s tied a record held by Annika Sorenstam and So Yeon Ryu.
Ko won five of her last nine events in 2021 and proved to be a Sunday magician, amassing a 66.89 final-round scoring average during that stretch. In her last nine starts, 29 of 33 rounds were in the 60s, and she had more victories than rounds in the 70s. She hit 87.8 percent of greens during that time.
During the CME, Ko hit an astonishing 63 consecutive greens in regulation while battling a sore left wrist that first flared up in in the spring. She didn’t warm up hitting full shots beyond a wedge the entire week in Naples. Ko plans to get an MRI on the wrist when she returns to South Korea.
When asked if she could’ve won more had she been healthy, she said yes.
“Early of the year, maybe over in May, June, July wasn’t good,” she said. “But especially Tokyo was so bad. So I just want to go back to Tokyo right now.”
Ko is the type of player who rises to an occasion, whether it’s a birdie bet for dinner with her caddie David Brooker or a Player of the Year title. She responds to carrots. While some players might try to downplay lofty goals, Ko is the type who does the math each time she wins a trophy. It takes 27 points to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame, and Ko knows better than anyone that she’s now only 10 points away.
In four short years on the tour, Ko has 12 titles, including two majors, and only two missed cuts in 70 starts. As for what comes next, Ko said she’ll put what’s left of the $1.5 million check after taxes in the bank and settle into the offseason in South Korea.
“I want to enjoy the Christmas,” she said. “I don’t want to think about next year’s schedule yet. But I had amazing year, five times win, and I’m very happy for it.”