Golfnutter: The legend grows

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The final round of the Evian Championship, the last of the year’s majors, was keenly anticipated.  In the last group were the overnight leader, Korean Mi Hyang Lee, the 20-year old American bomber and major winner, Lexi Thompson, and 18-year old Lydia Ko, attempting to win her first major and with it, the accolade of youngest ever.

After eight holes Thompson was 11-under and enjoying a three-shot lead over Ko, with Lee, struggling to stay in contention, a further two shots back.  Ko, ranked 65th in driving distance, was spotting the big-hitting Thompson some 20-yards off the tee, but that didn’t matter a damn.

Two Ko birdies later saw them tied with seven holes to play.  Here the pressure was at its greatest, a situation which seems to suit the Korean-born New Zealand teenager more than perhaps any other; an amazing claim given her age.  Over the last seven holes Thompson appeared to crack whereas Ko got better.  The final winning margin was an emphatic six shots.  Ko’s final round 8-under 63 was the lowest of the tournament.  It was her 4th win of the year, and gave her the title of youngest ever to win a major – a title she took off American, Morgan Pressel, by some six months.

Back in August 2012, Ko became the youngest player ever to win a LPGA event when she won the Canadian Open, as an amateur aged just 15 years.  She repeated the feat a year later, still an amateur.  This year she won it for the third time, but the first as a professional.

When Tiger Woods first achieved the number one ranking in men’s golf he was 21 years old.  Lydia Ko reached the same mark as a 17yo; four years younger than Tiger.  She lost the number one ranking to Inbee Park earlier this year, but after today’s win, many expect her to regain it before year’s end.

Ko proves there is no substitute for accuracy.  Par fives are the domain of the game’s long hitters, or are they?  Watching TV coverage of this event, I saw Thompson driving the ball 300 yards on more than one occasion.  Thompson, who ranks 4th in driving distance, played the par-fives in five-under.  Ko played them in nine-under.  Even playing longer irons and hybrids into greens, Ko still leads the LPGA in greens in regulation.  In Sunday’s final round, in such a pressure-cooker environment given it could be her first major, and the last chance she had to qualify as the youngest major winner ever, she missed one.  Yes you read that right; she missed one green out of 18.  Accuracy!

It isn’t just accuracy alone though.  It is Ko’s consistency which also plays a big part.  If one was to watch her hit balls on the driving range, one could be excused for thinking she lacks the explosiveness of a Lexi Thompson or Michelle Wie.  But hang around for a while and an erudite reader of the game will come to realise that unlike the others, Ko is repeating every shot flush, with unerring accuracy, time after time after time.  There is rarely a variation away from where she wants to be at impact.  The result is the straightest driving and iron play on tour.  Add this to an unflappable temperament and you have, as learned analyst and commentator Judy Rankin observes, a grinder like no other.

“When you look back and see Lydia coming at you, you know she won’t be going away.  It is a time of reckoning for many as they realise they need to up their game.  Some can do it, most cannot.  She will get you eventually,” said Rankin.

Ko’s coach, David Leadbetter, who was on hand to witness his charge become women’s golf youngest major winner, agrees: “Lydia now has all the shots she needs to shape the ball in accordance with what the situation demands.  Her practise is now all about maintenance of what she has, not development.”  That is an amazing statement to make of an 18-year old teenager.

Runner-up, Lexi Thompson, who once held the tour’s record for youngest-ever winner before Ko arrived, must have felt somewhat relieved that Ko shot the lights out.  It doesn’t feel so bad when losing to someone who shoots a final round 63, even if the margin is six shots.  But had she had lost by just the one shot, after a pressure-induced double-bogie on the par-3 14th, she may have felt a lot worse.

“It’s kind of hard to beat somebody that shoots 63,” said Thompson.  “She played amazing.  She deserves it.  She ball-struck the heck out of this golf course and putted it really well.  You can’t get much better than that.”

Ko, who’s dry humour and openness has ready appeal, was asked to comment on her birdie-birdie finish.  “I said before that my goal coming into today was to make par on 18.  I failed,” joked Ko, who had bogeyed 18 on her first three rounds.  “I’ll be back next year to do that.”

Fellow New Zealander and Golf Channel commentator, Frank Nobilo, got it about right on Twitter: “@LydiaKo continues the trend of being the youngest and the best at virtually every age.  Beyond extraordinary,” he wrote.

The legend grows.

Golfnutter