Lydia Ko is building back on her rise, opening at 63 in Boca Rio

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title=wpil_keyword_linkgolf tournament on Sunday, January 23, 2022 in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)” title=”Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees from the eighth fairway during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament on Sunday, January 23, 2022 in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)” loading=”lazy”/>

Lydia Ko of New Zealand tees from the eighth fairway during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament on Sunday, January 23, 2022 in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

AP

Lydia Ko ventures back to the top of women’s golf, birdies on half her holes for a 9-under 63 Thursday and a two-stroke lead over Danielle Kang at the Gainbridge LPGA in Boca Rio.

Ko has been winning on the LPGA Tour for so long — winning her first title as a 15-year-old — it’s easy to forget she’s only 24.

A 16-time winner on tour, Ko has seen everything from winning two Majors and becoming world No. 1 to her ball strike, results and confidence. She ended a nearly three-year drought by winning in Hawaii last year. She’s back at #3 in the world.

“Hopefully I can hold today’s ‘goods’ for the rest of the week,” said Ko, who had a round without a bogey.

Kang, who clinched a season-opening win at Lake Nona last week, had eight birdies (one of them after her par-3 17th tee shot hit the flagstick) for a 65.

Aditi Ashok (66) was third alone, followed by a 5-under-67 group that also included US Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso. A short birdie lip-out on the par 5 eighth, her penultimate hole of the day, kept top finisher Nelly Korda from joining this group. She paced her final hole for par, finishing on 68.

Just over half of the 120-strong field broke par on a warm day with little wind, ideal conditions for scoring goals.

A missed putt from 5 feet on her final hole kept Ko from breaking the tournament record set in 2020 by Madelene Sagstrom, who won the event. Ko hit 12 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens with 26 putts.

Ko, who finished 10th in her season debut at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions last week, wasn’t long upset by that brief miss. There were far too many positives on their round to go into a single shot.

Ko, who teeted off in the afternoon after Kang posted 65, was solid all day and never got into much trouble from tee to green as her count hit only one bad shot. She said she felt rusty at last week’s event at Lake Nona, her home course. But the overall condition of their game was a pleasant surprise.

She ran off two three-birdie bursts to distance herself from long hitters Korda and Lexi Thompson (70), who played alongside.

Kang finished third at Boca Rio when it hosted the Gainbridge two years ago. Your memories of the week?

“I can’t remember, to be honest,” Kang said. “All I remember is the greens were really fast… I can’t remember the shots I hit.”

Kang won the Tournament of Champions for the first time since the summer of 2020 last week and performed well over the weekend (69-68) in cooler temperatures that earlier might have put them out of their game.

Playing in the cold is something Kang has been working on during the offseason, playing and training at home in Las Vegas in cool, windy conditions. It’s expected to cool into the 50s in Boca this weekend. Last week, on a more challenging golf course, Kang was the only golfer in the 29-man LPGA field to hit 70 on both weekend days.

She had another solid lap on Thursday and even her one tough break went in her favour. Kang started the new year with an ace in a loose round. Her 9-iron on the 17th never left the flag, banged on the underside of the flag and bounced 15 feet away. Does not matter. She pocketed the birdie putt.

Kang won and raised $225,000 on Sunday, and it may not have been her best day of the week. On Tuesday morning, Kang played golf with hockey star Wayne Gretzky at the ultra-private The Grove XXIII in nearby Hobe Sound. She also joined Wayne and Janet Gretzky, who have Southern California ties, for the grown-ups’ birthday dinner on Wednesday.

Kang was sitting in the clubhouse after her round on Tuesday when a deep voice waved at her, “Hey DK. Nice win!” It was the course owner, Michael Jordan.

“I’m just staring at him,” Kang said. “This is Michael Jordan. That’s cool.”

Yes, 2022 is off to a good start.

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