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Lydia Ko earns 20th win, moves past difficult 2023 at LPGA opener

ORLANDO, Fla. — Golfer Lydia Ko’s return to the LPGA winner’s circle was a long time coming, but also just a short trip away.

Ko’s home was just a custom golf-cart drive from first tee of the LPGA Tour’s season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.

The convenience and comfort level contributed to a long-awaited win Sunday on familiar fairways among the friendly faces of fellow members at Orlando’s Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. The 26-year-old’s consistent ball-striking and clutch short game did the rest as she quickly moved past a winless 2023 LPGA campaign with a 2-shot win over 19-year-old American Alexa Pano.

During sub-60 temperatures and whipping winds, Ko carded a 2-under-par 70 to finish at 14-under 274 for her 20th LPGA victory and winner’s check of $225,000.

New York Mets infielder Jeff McNeil took home $100,000 for winning the celebrity division featuring 48 golfers from the worlds of music, entertainment and sports.

“You can turn it around really quick — golf is weird like that,” Ko said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be back in the winner’s circle, and to be back in the first tournament of the season, it’s pretty cool and so much faster than I could have ever anticipated.”

Ko also has been on the fast track for some time.

The South Korean-born New Zealander became the youngest-ever winner of an LPGA Tour event at age 15 in August 2012 and became a full-time pro the following October. But a history-making meteoric rise eventually lost steam, leading to a crisis of confidence and a winless stretch of 155 weeks ending in April 2021 to spur a strong season.

Ko’s resurgence led to a dominant 2022 season featuring three wins and her return to world No. 1. She now seeks a third career renaissance after an inexplicable 2023 that featured far more tears than top-10 finishes.

“I cry a lot would be something that I learned,” Ko said of her trying season. “I’m like, ‘I got to get the faucet to stop.’ ”

Oddly, Ko did not shed a drop in the aftermath of Sunday’s emotional win.

“I thought I would cry but nothing is coming out,” she said. “I don’t even know what that means.”

Ko’s return to the winner’s circle signaled a bit of a return to the LPGA Tour’s natural order and puts her one win away from the Hall of Fame.

Ko often made her latest victory look easy.

She found 42 of 56 fairways, including 10 of 14 Sunday, and hit 77.8% of greens in regulation (56 of 72). When in trouble or needing a key putt Sunday, Ko came through.

Playing partner Ally Ewing marveled at Ko’s sand save on the par-3 13th hole.

“In a bunker, it’s downwind, downhill. That bunker shot, she landed it in the perfect spot,” Ewing said. “People sometimes don’t give the credit where credit is due in difficult shots. She hit some really good ones.”

Ko’s up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 15th required sublime touch out of deep rough while her 5-foot par putt on 16 keep at bay a hard-charging Pano, who began the day two shots back and seeking her second LPGA win.

“Even though you have a few-shot cushion, you want to make sure you get the job done yourself,” Ko said.

Ko also made a point to keep on edge.

Living near the ninth green at Lake Nona Golf Club, Ko forgot to set her alarm during the 2022 event and arrived late to a warm-up.

This time, Ko was right on time — and not a moment’s too soon.

“When you win, it definitely gives you a sense of relief, just to say, ‘Hey, I can do it,’ ” she said. “But there is no way around thinking that it’s easy to win. None of it comes easy.”