The No. 1 player in the world took four weeks off. She needed to recharge her batteries, not live out of her suitcase for a while, and sleep until 3 p.m. But that’s not all Lydia Ko did during her month-long hiatus.
Last weekend, she served as celebrity ambassador for the Invictus Games, in which wounded, sick or injured personnel from the armed services compete in Paralympic-style events. Prince Harry created it in 2014, and Ko was honored to join him for the Games in Orlando, Fla.
“What Prince Harry did to support the wounded warriors, (he) embraced it and made them into superstars and the champions they are,” Ko said. “It was really inspiring for me. I complain of things I wish I had or I wish I could be better at. There are men and women and their families who have gone through so much more. I met a gentleman from Britain who had both legs amputated, and he was still out there, still enjoying the game. It was a really inspiring thing. For them to do what they’re doing, it kind of takes us back and makes it all more humbling.”
With some rest and added perspective, Ko is ready to resume her role as the player to beat on the LPGA Tour. Having played in only eight of the tour’s 12 events coming into the Kingsmill Championship, she’s won two tournaments and finished in the top five three other times.
Her winnings this year are $1,071,567. That’s $378,469 more than anyone else.
“She seems to win every tournament she enters,” tour veteran Brittany Lincicome said. “That’s crazy.”
What’s crazy is that Ko, who was born in South Korea but moved to New Zealand as a child, just turned 19 three weeks ago. She’s already won 12 LPGA events, including five last year.
At 14, she played her first LPGA event — and finished tied for 19th. At 15, she won the CN Canadian Women’s Open. At 16, she repeated, becoming the first amateur to win two LPGA events.
And on Feb. 2, 2015, she became the youngest golfer of either gender to be ranked No. 1, at 17 years, nine months and eight days.
Statistically, she leads the Tour in eight categories, including scoring average (69.28), putting average (28.41) and Rolex Player of the Year points (128). But here’s the most telling figure: Of her 32 rounds this year, 27 have been under par.
“Coming into this year, we’ve been trying to be a little bit more consistent in all aspects,” said Ko, choosing that pronoun to reflect the team. “I think consistency is not something that you can go, ‘OK, I’ve mastered it,’ because even until the last moment you play on tour, I know I want to be more and more consistent.”
This will be Ko’s third trip to Kingsmill. In her first, as a 17-year-old, she tied for fifth at 8 under. Last year, she was T-16th at minus 5.
Though Ko has been the hottest golfer on the tour, the field, as always, is loaded. Twenty-seven of the top 30 on the LPGA Tour’s money list are in the field. That includes seven of this year’s eight champions. (Ha Na Jang, who has won two events this year, is taking some time off due to health issues.)
If not Ko, who will win this week? Japan’s Haru Nomura, second on the money list, has won twice this year. Lexi Thompson is the top American on the tour, with one championship and five top-10 finishes. Minjee Lee is the defending champion.
Chances are, it’ll be someone who was born after 1992. The oldest winner this year, Jang, was 23 years, 10 months and 4 days old at the time of her championship. Three tournaments have been won by teenagers.
“It’s getting younger and younger,” said Thompson, who had just turned 21 when she won the Honda LPGA Thailand in February. “I thought I was the young one out here. Now I’m a veteran, it seems like, so it’s pretty crazy.
“But it’s great to see how much the tour has grown even since I turned professional. We’ve gained more tournaments, more sponsors, more TV time, and the talent out here is unbelievable.”
The River Course has been hit by rain the last two days, and the forecast calls for more on Saturday. That could favor a long hitter like Thompson, who leads the tour in average driving distance at 284 yards.
“It might give me a little bit of an advantage just being a little bit longer off the tee, but same strategy, hitting a lot of drivers,” she said. “The practice rounds on Monday, the greens were very firm and fast, so this rain actually helped them out a little bit.”
Johnson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4649.