NAPLES, Fla. – When Jin Young Ko’s putter didn’t cooperate at tournaments, her phone would quickly ring. On the other line would be her grandmother, her most beloved critic, back home in South Korea.
“If I missed a lot of putts,” Ko explained, “after the tournament, she’d call me, ‘Why did you do that?’”
Ko won’t get to speak to her grandmother on Sunday evening. Not because the putts fell in bunches – Ko made 16 birdies on the weekend, including nine on Sunday, to complete a one-shot victory at the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship – but because Ko lost her grandmother earlier this year.
“I was really sad early in the year, and I didn’t think I could win again,” said Ko, whose resounding triumph was highlighted by a pair of 63s – her tournament-best, 9-under 63 on Sunday and her streak of 63 consecutive greens hit in regulation to cap a winning week and sensational season, which also included Ko overtaking world No. 1 Nelly Korda for points-based Rolex Player of the Year honors.
“It's amazing how I won five times when I look back.”
Ko's five-win campaign marked the LPGA's first since Ariya Jutanugarn in 2016, but before the 26-year-old Ko won a single tournament this season, she, in a shocking revelation, contemplated quitting the world’s biggest women’s golf tour.
When Ko’s grandmother, Soon Deok Jung, died last March, just before the ANA Inspiration, it sent Ko into an emotional spiral. She already had been homesick – and physically and mentally drained by the abbreviated offseason – after returning to the LPGA full-time late last year following an early-pandemic stint on the Korean LPGA. But strict quarantine rules made matters worse by preventing Ko from heading back to South Korea, meaning she was only able to communicate with her grandmother and parents via FaceTime during her grandmother’s final days.
“I didn’t really want to play golf on this tour,” Ko recalled. “Yeah, because if I did play on KLPGA, I could [see] her, but this tour, I love this tour, but it's too far from Korea to here, so I couldn't get to Korea before she passed away.
“That's the first time I really didn’t want to play on the LPGA.”
However, with her grandmother “looking down on me from the sky,” a tired and grieving Ko played on, notching top-10s at the ANA and U.S. Women’s Open before getting back into the winner’s circle in early July at the Volunteers of America Classic. “The victory is for my grandmother,” Ko said after winning in Texas, her first LPGA title with her parents in attendance. Her father, Sung Tae Ko, and mother, Mi Kyung Kim, spent about a month in the U.S. watching their daughter play.
After the Olympics, where she tied for ninth, Ko took six weeks off. During that stretch, she found something mentally, and when she showed again on the LPGA, she won in her first start, in Portland. In the five events that followed, she lifted two more trophies and didn’t finish worse than T-6 leading into CME.
“After [my grandmother] passed away, I was thinking, yeah, she really wants to see a lot of wins from heaven,” Ko, who also lost her grandfather, Ik Joo Ko, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2018, said earlier this week. “So, I worked hard, and I won four tournaments.”
Now, make that five. For the second straight year, Ko raised the CME Globe and cashed the event’s lucrative winner’s check ($1.5 million, up $400,000 from last year), but this one hit different. She didn’t just navigate the year with emotional turmoil, she also battled physical adversity, specifically a left-wrist injury that she suffered in May and still hindered her at Tiburon.
Aside from a few chips and putts, Ko didn’t hit a single full warmup shot all week. Each day she’d arrive at the course about 30 minutes before her tee time, head to the short-game area that abuts the first tee and then off she’d go. But the injury, which she managed with tape, a nightly icing regimen and pain medicine, didn’t seem to affect her game.
Unfazed, Ko played her way into Sunday’s final threesome with a third-round, 6-under 66 on Saturday that included seven consecutive birdies after an opening par. The front-nine birdie barrage resumed a day later as Ko holed six birdie putts, including a 5-footer at the par-3 eighth, to break out of a logjam at the start of the day and build a three-shot lead over Nasa Hataoka, who joined Ko and Korda in the star-studded final group, at the turn.
When Ko nearly holed a wedge shot for eagle at the par-4 10th but missed the 3-footer, she responded by draining a 30-foot birdie putt at No. 11 to maintain a two-shot advantage. Her 12-foot make at the par-4 13th pushed her back to three shots ahead, as Hataoka and Korda each missed birdie putts inside of Ko’s.
Hataoka kept things close, firing her second straight 64 that was capped by a 12-foot birdie make at the last, but it never felt like Ko’s victory was ever in doubt. Ko, who finished at 23 under, just never got herself in trouble.
“I was hitting straight last four days, and, well, it's ridiculous, I think,” Ko said of her eye-popping GIR streak. (For reference, according to Twenty First Grip’s Justin Ray, the last player on the PGA Tour to hit at least 50 consecutive greens in regulation was Mike Heinen … in 1995.)
Thanks to her CME win, her 12th in four years on the LPGA, Ko becomes the first South Korean player to win Player of the Year twice after sweeping every major award two years ago. She also earned two more LPGA Hall of Fame points to push her total to 17 (induction requires 27).
As for Korda, who won four times this season (plus Olympic gold) and earlier in the week fielded questions about how prepared she was to be the face of the LPGA, she couldn’t get anything going with the flatstick. She missed several crucial putts down the stretch, though by then it mattered little.
On this day, Ko was too good. With the final round being broadcast on NBC with the tour's biggest stars in the last group, many were licking their chops at the potential for network-worthy drama on the LPGA season’s final day.
Instead, Ko turned must-see TV into her own special.
“Honestly, it was definitely the “Jin Young Ko Show” today,” Korda said. “It was really cool to witness. … She made everything, so I just kind of sat back and watched all day.”
Ko just wishes her grandmother could’ve also tuned in.
“She would be crying,” Ko said. “I think she would’ve said, ‘Your putter was good.’