Lydia Ko Back At The Top

Lydia Ko Back At The Top

Contributor: Doug Ferguson

Women’s golf had some rising stars of their own, as usual, this time on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and coming from all corners of the world. Atthaya Thitikul is a 19-year- old from Thailand whose career was decided early when her parents offered her a chance to play either golf or tennis. She watched YouTube videos of both sports and chose golf, and never looked back. At age 14, she played her first LPGA Tour event in Thailand and finished in 37th from a 66-player field. She won the Ladies European Tour money title and was Rookie of the Year in 2021, earned her LPGA Tour card through the qualifying tournament and a year later reached number one in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She won twice on the LPGA Tour and won the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year. She lost the number one ranking after two weeks to Nelly Korda and then Lydia Ko, two of the best in golf. She finished fifth on the women’s world money list with $2,205,167.

Linn Grant, the Swede with Scottish heritage, played her college golf at Arizona State and within six months of turning professional in the summer of 2021, she had status on the LPGA Tour and the Ladies European Tour. She chose to play most of her golf in Europe, and it paid off in a big way, and an historic way at one tournament. Grant won six times, the most of any woman around the world. Four of those victories were on the Ladies European Tour, and that included the Volvo Car Scandinavian Mixed at Halmstad Golf Club in Sweden. The tournament was co- sanctioned with the DP World Tour with a field of 78 men and 78 women playing from different tees for the same trophy and equal prize money. Grant closed with a 64 to win by nine shots ahead of the nearest men — Henrik Stenson and Marc Warren — and 14 ahead of the closest woman. It was the second time a woman had won against a mixed field, with Hannah Green winning the TPS Murray River in Australia by four shots. But the world of women’s golf was largely about a return of the old guard. If it seems as though Lydia Ko has been around forever, maybe that’s because she won her first LPGA Tour event 10 years ago when she was 15, the youngest ever to win on the LPGA Tour. She was 17 when she reached number one in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings for the first time in 2015. She was still 18 and already had won two majors. But it wasn’t long before her game began to lag behind, and the New Zealand great went three years without winning before she slowly began to turn it around last year. And then 2022 brought her back to the top of golf.

Ko won the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio in January by one shot over Danielle Kang, who had won the LPGA season opener. And while Ko didn’t win again until the latter portion of the year, her consistency was astonishing. She had 14 finishes in the top 10, three of them in the majors. Ko won the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea, and then she closed out her big year in the best way. By capturing the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, Ko not only claimed the biggest prize in women’s golf at $2 million, but she also returned to number one in the world for the first time in more than five years and swept all the biggest honours, such as the Rolex Player of the Year and the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average. And if all that wasn’t enough, she ended 2022 by getting married. Ko led the women’s world money list with $4,364,403, with
$2 million of that coming from the final event.

That it took so long for Ko to return to the top of the world ranking was not so much about how far back she started, rather how deep the competition continues to become in women’s golf. She was the fourth player to reach number one for the year, but really the one player who outperformed all the others, some of that because of injury. Nelly Korda, coming off a monumental year of five wins, a major and an Olympic gold medal, started the year at number one. It wasn’t long before her season came to a halt. She felt pain in her right arm during a visit to the Players Championship, and it was diagnosed as a blood clot. She had surgery and was out for four months, not returning until the US Women’s Open. She didn’t feature in any of the four majors she played. Korda won an Aramco Series event on the Ladies European Tour, and then finally got on track — and returned to number one in the world — by repeating her victory at the Pelican Women’s Championship. “Going through what I’ve been through this year and regaining that world number one ranking is really special,” she said.

Jin Young Ko was at number one for the most weeks (39), though it wasn’t the South Korean’s best year. It started well enough with a victory in the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore. That turned out to be her only victory of the year. Most telling that something was wrong were the majors. She had a pair of top 10s without being in serious contention. But as her wrist injury worsened, so did her results. She missed the cut in the AIG Women’s Open, and after another missed cut at her next start in Canada, she took two months off. Returning on home soil in the BMW Ladies Championship, she had to withdraw after two rounds.

Minjee Lee was number two on the world money list at $3,855,946, and she cashed in at what is considered the biggest prize in women’s golf. She overwhelmed the field in the US Women’s Open, which this year offered the biggest prize fund in women’s golf history at $10 million. This was three weeks after the Australian won the Cognizant Founders Cup, and Lee added to her breakthrough year by finishing runner-up at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She finished the year fourth in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Money became a big talking point in women’s golf this year, including the source of it — the corporate world, becoming increasingly sensitive toward giving women their due. Cognizant entered the golf sponsorship world by joining both tours. It was a corporate partner for the Presidents Cup, and a title sponsor for an LPGA Tour event. All the majors raised their prize funds. A year ago, the five LPGA majors combined to offer $23.4 million in prize money. In 2022, the total prize fund for the majors was $37.8 million. Throw in CME offering a $7 million purse — with $2 million for the winner — and it was another indicator of women’s golf on the rise. At the final tournament of the year, LPGA Tour commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan announced a 2023 schedule in which prize money tops $100 million for the first time in history.


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