ORLANDO, Fla. – The joke coming up the 18th on Sunday was that Lydia Ko now owns more LPGA titles (20) than years Alexa Pano has been alive (19). As a young Pano collected her second career top-10 finish with a runner-up showing at the 2024 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, Ko moved to within one point of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Inbee Park was the last player to qualify for what’s considered the toughest Hall of Fame in sports eight years ago. At age 27, Park was the youngest to ever enter the Hall of Fame.
With 26 points, Ko is now the closest active player. Laura Davies, who is already in the World Golf Hall of Fame, remains two points shy of the LPGA Hall and plays a limited schedule of four to five LPGA events each season.
Current World No. 1 Lilia Vu remembers watching a 15-year-old Ko win on the LPGA a dozen years ago and thinking, What is going on?
“I remember being like, she’s the same age as me,” said Vu, “and I’m just in high school.”
Vu, who is glad she went the college route at UCLA, remains amazed by Ko’s prowess inside the ropes.
“She can hit the green from anywhere,” said Vu. “I’ve seen her almost in impossible places, and she’ll hit it to 10 feet. I’m like, how did you do that?”
A closing 2-under 70 on another chilly day at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club gave Ko a 14-under total and a victory at her home club. She bought a home at Lake Nona toward the end of 2019, moving in just before Christmas.
Now the seventh woman on the LPGA to reach 20 wins before age 27, Ko joins a list that includes Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Mickey Wright, Lorena Ochoa and Kathy Whitworth.
There have been times when a lost Ko wondered if she’d ever win again. She’s now cautious about getting too far ahead of herself.
“I won my first event last year (on the LET) and kind of went sideways very quickly,” Ko said of not getting “too cocky.”
And by that, the humble Ko simples means not to let the early success get to her head. To make sure she’s still doing practice swings in her room, along with all the other little things that got her to this point.
Lydia Ko of New Zealand plays her shot from the 18th tee during the final round of the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club on January 21, 2024 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
While Ko experienced an unprecedented amount of early success on the LPGA, winning twice as an amateur before she even joined the tour, her career has had a shocking number of peaks and valleys. After ending a three-year victory drought in 2021 in dominating fashion in Hawaii, Ko won three times in 2022 and earned Player of the Year and Vare Trophy honors. She looked poised to sprint into the Hall.
The 2023 season, however, took a sharp turn south after an opening victory on the Ladies European Tour in Saudi Arabia. It got so bad, that Ko had to press toward the end of the year just to try to qualify for the CME Group Tour Championship, which she’d won the previous year. Ko ended up not qualifying and instead flew in new swing coach Si Woo Kim to Orlando. Kim had taken a look at Ko’s swing during the Asian swing in South Korea.
Soon after, she teamed up with Aussie Jason Day to win the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitational and headed into a short offseason with a more positive frame of mind.
Inbee Park, who is currently on maternity leave, leads the tour among active players with 21 titles. Both Davies and Cristie Kerr have 20. Former No. 1s Yani Tseng, who has been battling injury and off the tour since 2021, and Jin Young Ko each have 15 victories.
Ko’s said her low point last season came in Arkansas at a Staybridge Suites when she found herself crying to her husband about her inability to string two rounds together. The tears flowed often last year. Even her mom said something about how much she cried.
“I think last year I was chasing the Hall of Fame,” said Ko. “I felt like I could have – with the way I was playing in 2022 – I could back it up with another great year. Look where it put me.”
After winning at Nona, Ko thought she’d cry tears of joy. Interestingly, nothing came out.
“I don’t even know what that means,” she said with a smile.
The faucet finally turned off, and a mature, introspective Ko is left to march on toward her destiny, with each triumph feeling that much sweeter.