“I am not a robot. I’m human,” said Jin Young Ko in response to a little local difficulty in the third round when a five-stroke lead was reduced to one all too quickly. Ko’s golf on the demanding Dinah Shore Tournament Course was of such high quality that it may have looked pre-programmed, with victory in the ANA Inspiration the inevitable outcome, but overcoming the occasional error message made this triumph even more impressive. “Sometimes it happens on the course,” she added of finding the water at the short 14th on Saturday. “Mostly this course is really hard, so everyone can miss a shot. So okay, I’m fine. I not worry. Doesn’t matter.”
There was another wobble on Sunday. A second bogey in three holes at the 15th left her only one ahead. Here was the defining test for the 23-year-old from Seoul, the LPGA’s most in-form player and possessor of a beautiful, ever-repeating swing.
On the hardest hole on the course, the 16th, Ko hit a nine iron to 15 feet and made a three. She almost birdied the 17th, when her closest rivals failed to find the back-left portion of the green to give themselves a chance of a two as she did. Then on the 18th, where the tee was moved up to give players the chance to go for the green in two, although those that did mostly battled for a par-five, Ko produced four perfect shots. The drive split the fairway, the lay up left her just under 90 yards over the water and the wedge finished 12 feet left of the flag.
When the putt went in, the impassive demeanor of Korea’s latest champion was replaced by a very human response. Her hands flew to her face and tears of joy and relief flowed. Her first thoughts were for her grandfather, who had died almost exactly a year earlier. “I miss my grandfather,” Ko said. “He would like this moment; also he will be crying, I think.” Two birdies in the last three holes had given Ko a three-stroke victory over compatriot Mi Hyang Lee. The daughter of a boxer, Ko learnt to absorb the emotional blows golf infects as well as deliver her own punches on the course. “I try to be the happiest golfer on the course,” she said. “If the ball goes left or right, it doesn’t make me happy but I still try to be happy. Focuson my swing, on the putting, that’s why I won this week. But, honestly, happiest golfer. That’s it. This win is just a bonus to me.” A fourth LPGA title, and a first major, took Ko into the top spot on the Rolex Rankings. This triumph had been coming.
The Rookie of the Year in 2018, Ko had finished in the top three in four of her previous five events, including victory at the Founders Cup and a runner-up finish at the Kia Classic in the previous two weeks. A five-week training stint in Palm Springs — including a couple of trips to Mission Hills — at the start of the year had proved the perfect preparation eviously she had not enjoyed her visits to the ANA, but her caddie, Dave Brooker, believed otherwise. “My caddie always says, ‘You will like this course.’ I thought, How? I finish 71st and 64th the last couple years. Now I really like this course.” Brooker had caddied for previous winners Grace Park and Lorena Ochoa, so made his third jump into Poppie’s Pond alongside Ko’s first.
Higher rainfall than usual in February led to the rough at Mission Hills being thicker than for many years. In addition, some tees were pushed back a total of 60 yards, including at the 15th where Gerald Ford Drive, just over the out-of-bounds wall on the left, threatens the tee shot. The effect on scoring was notable on a breathless first morning when the leading score was no lower than 69. Ko, with only one bogey, was among those to post that number, her first ever sub-70 score on the course. Lexi Thompson birdied the last two holes to share the early lead and the pair were joined by Hyo Joo Kim and Sweden’s Linnea Strom. It was not until the final putt of the day, a five-footer for a birdie at the 18th by Ally McDonald, that a player
managed to record a 68.
McDonald, who missed the cut on her debut at the ANA in 2018, collected seven birdies despite playing in the last group out and getting the worst of the conditions as the wind gusted to 15 mph late in the afternoon. “I’ve never found myself in this position, so it’s easy to get ahead of yourself,” said McDonald, who had four in a row from the seventh. “I played the par-fives really well today, which is exciting. On a major championship golf course you have to take advantage of the par-fives.” Michelle Wie also managed four birdies in a row during her round but had started five over par for the first eight holes, so ended up with a 74. Due to injuries this was only her fourth appearance since the previous August and on her last, at the HSBC Women’s World Championship, she had to withdraw after 14 holes. Also on 74 was Nelly Korda, whose form was second only to Ko’s entering the championship. A win and four other top-10s in her five previous events had promised much, but the younger Korda sister struggled here. Unlike Wie, she did go on to make the cut, but it was Jessica who led the Korda challenge, eventually finishing sixth.
Every time In-Kyung Kim returns to Mission Hills she must be reminded of the 14-inch putt she missed on the final green in 2012. Revenge of a sort arrived when she finally won a major at the Women’s British Open in 2017, but a seven-under-par 65, the best score of the week, was a welcome tonic on Friday morning. The 30-year-old dropped only one shot and birdied the ninth, her final hole, to top the leaderboard at eight under par. Not that she was aware. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the leaderboard because I’m just blessed to be here,” said Kim, one of the more deeper souls to be found in professional golf. “For a long time it was one of my goals to win, but now I’m just really happy to be out here.” Australia’s Katherine Kirk, with a 68 despite bogeying the last two holes, ended up her nearest challenger, three behind. Ko, after a 71 in the afternoon when the wind was at its strongest again, and McDonald, who overcame early nerves when teeing off as the leader to post a 72, were a further stroke behind. Thompson had two late bogeys in a 72 and was on three under with Danielle Kang, Charley Hull and current world No. 1 Sung Hyun ParkSurprisingly, Park faded over the weekend and lost her No. 1 ranking, while the 2018 player of the year, Ariya Jutanugarn, never mounted a challenge at all.
Kim made a slow start on Saturday which was compounded by a double bogey at the ninth. The first of her seven shots clattered into a tree and left her merely 130 yards off the tee at the par-five. Moments later Ko birdied the 10th to turn a four-shot overnight deficit into a dramatic five-stroke lead. Although Canada’s Alena Sharp returned a 67, only Ko of those pursuing Kim was able to make a move. And what a move. She birdied the second, holed a monster putt at the fourth, also birdied the fifth and sixth holes before wedging to six inches at the ninth to be out in 31. A five at the short 14th halted the momentum and Ko also bogeyed the
15th, but a two at the 17th gave her a 68 and at eight under par she was the 54-hole leader. Kim had rallied stoically for a 73 with birdies at the 10th and 18th holes to lie just one behind, while Kang and Lee sat two shots further back. Lee also dropped three shots in two holes on the back nine but made them back with a hole-in-one at the 17th — from 181 yards with a five-hybrid, a squeal of delight when it went in — and a birdie at the last.
Lee birdied the first two holes on Sunday — five under for her last four holes — but thereafter managed only a bogey and a birdie. Her best result in a major arrived with a 70. “There were a lot of cameras and people cheering on back nine, but I still managed to control myself,” she said. “I think my mental game is better than before and I am more confident.”
Thompson, the 2014 champion, recovered from a 74 on Saturday with a 67 to take third place. “I knew I needed to have a low round to have any sort of chance today,” said the 24-year-old. “Before I even stepped foot out on the golf course I was texting my caddie, Benji, and we said we had to just fire at every pin.” Five birdies coming home put her at six under, but pars on the last two meant Ko had some breathing space. Ko was also helped by Kang dropping out of contention with a triple bogey at the third and Kim having double at the 11th when her ball got stuck up a eucalyptus tree. A 74 meant Kim shared fourth place with Carlota Ciganda. Kang was in the group in sixth place that included McDonald, after weekend scores of 74 and 70, and Jeongeun Lee 6, after four scores of 71.
Ko was not flawless but did what was needed in birdieing the second, fifth and 11th holes. She dropped shots at the short eighth and the 13th and 15th holes but then rebooted to clinch the victory. She had hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens, while the 10- to 15-footers that needed to go in all did. A 70 left her on a 10-under-par total of 278. The situation got tight at the end but never her swing, which retained its majestic rhythm to the end — too much of a thing of beauty to be robotic.