ORLANDO, Florida – The LPGA season-opener is a bona fide home game for a number of LPGA stars, including Lydia Ko, who drove her own golf cart in the pro-am Wednesday at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.
The former No. 1 understandably chose her honeymoon over this event last season, but is back at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, where she’s been practicing the past two months. Ko and her husband also spend time in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she plays out of The Olympic Club and Lake Merced.
The 35-player field at this year’s TOC includes 10 first-time participants, including World No. 1 Lilia Vu. Last week, Ko played a practice round with fellow Nona members Leona Maguire and Nasa Hataoka, who are also in the field. Players who have won in the past two seasons on the LPGA are eligible.
While the pros compete for a $1.5 million purse on Jan. 18-21, celebrity contestants will play for $500,000 in a Modified Stableford format. Another famed Lake Nona resident, LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam, will compete in the celebrity division along with NBC’s Dylan Dreyer, U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Landon Donovan, eight-time NBA All-Star Vince Carter, country music star Chris Lane and World Series Champion John Smoltz, a two-time champion at the TOC.
Sorenstam, a 10-time major winner who lives off the 16th tee at Nona, retired from the LPGA in 2008 but made a return to the competitive scene after turning 50.
“I’ve been so close,” said Sorenstam of winning the celebrity division on home turf. “(Husband) Mike (McGee) has all the stats of all the events I played in. I’ve been knocking on the door, but haven’t really been able to put four great rounds together. That’s what I would love to do.”
While Sorenstam’s legacy in the game is firmly cemented, Ko still has a chance to earn her way into arguably the toughest Hall of Fame in all of sports. Now two points shy of the 27 required to qualify for the LPGA Hall, Ko would get there with two regular-season wins or one major championship victory. This year she’s playing a heavier schedule than recent years, one that rivals her rookie season, in an effort to leave nothing on the table.
“I said if I win twice early in the year, like I might not play the 25 and might be a little bit less,” she said. “I want to give myself as many opportunities as I can, and I think being in the Hall of Fame was not really a big goal of mine, but 2022, it was like a gift of a year that like in one year I got five points.
“I was like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ Now I’m at the front door. Whether it happens or not, that’s secondary. I don’t want the regret of thinking I left something behind.”
Lydia Ko of New Zealand and Jason Day of Australia celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2023 Grant Thornton Invitational at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
The 26-year-old said at the start of her LPGA career that she wouldn’t play on the tour past the age of 30. The two-time Olympic medalist (silver in Rio and bronze in Tokyo) said the fairy-tale ending would be to win gold in Paris to collect them all. It’s unlikely, she said, that she’ll still be competing when the Summer Games come to Los Angeles in 2028.
“I joke sometimes that I’m not an athlete but an Olympian,” Ko said laughing. “I’m super excited for Paris.”
After a 2022 season that saw her win four times and earn the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year award, Ko struggled mightily with her ball-striking in 2023. In many ways, it felt like a lost season until she came to the final event – the Grant Thornton Invitational, a resurrected mixed-team tournament between the LPGA and PGA Tour that hadn’t happened since 1999.
Ko hit the ball so poorly during the Tuesday practice round with partner Jason Day in Naples, Florida, last December that she felt embarrassed. By Friday, however, something clicked, and she and Day ended the year with an unofficial victory and broad smiles.
The chase continues.
“I want to put my 100 percent in it, whether it’s my practice or scheduling. If it happens, that’s great,” she said of her big-picture goals. “If it doesn’t happen, just not meant to be.
“I think that has just been the mindset I’ve tried to take on from this year onwards.”