Teen star Lydia Ko eyes success at Evian and 3rd major title
EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France (AP) Defending champion Lydia Ko starts her bid for a third major title by the age of 19 at the Evian Championship, the final major of the season.
But it will be hard to match her performance last year, let alone improve it.
She became the youngest major champion in LPGA history with her six-shot triumph, sinking a 15-foot birdie putt to close with a final-round 63 for an LPGA record low last round by a winner at a major.
''A lot of memories of walking down the 18th on that last day,'' Ko said Wednesday ahead of Thursday's opening round. ''It was so much more than I could have ever imagined.''
Since then, the South-Korean born New Zealander has picked up five more titles, including a second major at the ANA Inspiration in April. She also came back from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with a silver medal, finishing behind South Korean Inbee Park.
Ko truly announced her arrival on the biggest stage as a 16-year-old when she finished second in Evian in 2013 – the year it became the fifth major in women's golf. Tipped as a future great in her mid-teens, she was already the youngest winner on the Tour after winning the 2012 Canadian Women's Open.
There has been no stopping her, and last year she became the youngest woman or man to be ranked No. 1.
As well as clinching a third major, Ko has another target in mind. She hopes to win the third edition of the Rolex Annika Major Award, which rewards the player with the best combined record at all five majors and is named after 10-time major winner Annika Sorenstam.
''It would mean so much,'' Ko said. ''Without players like her, there might not be a Tour like it is today.''
American Michelle Wie won it in 2014 and Park was last year's winner.
Also in contention this year are women's PGA champion Brooke Henderson, U.S. Open winner Brittany Lang, and British Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn.
Ko and the 20-year-old Jutanugarn will clinch the trophy with a win. They are also competing for the Rolex Player of the Year award, which is shaping up as a two-way race between them.
Ko is just five points ahead of Jutanugarn, while Henderson sits is third place – although the 19-year-old Canadian is a long way back.
''To me it's very cool. It's been like this when we were juniors because we played together, Lydia used to be No. 1, I'm second, and Brooke used to play really good,'' Jutanugarn said. ''To me it's just like junior golf again – but we're professionals and we can have fun and make some money, so that's more fun.''
Jutanugarn leads the LPGA Tour with five wins this year, and all of those have been won without using a driver.
''I tried to hit driver on Monday, but I'm not really comfortable because this course is really narrow,'' she said. ''So, no driver this week.''
China's Shanshan Feng, who placed third here last year, will be in confident mood after her bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.
She was stunned by her reception when she returned to China.
''When I landed in Guangzhou it was surprising kind of because there were more than 100 people waiting for me, and that made me feel like I was a star,'' she said. ''I think there will be more people that will actually start to join the sport. But it's going to take a little time.''
She has certainly being doing her bit to draw more attention to golf.
When the nation's Olympic medalists met China President Xi Jinping on their return home, she made quite an impression.
''The others didn't say anything. But when it came to my turn, I was like, `President, you're so handsome.''' she said. ''I did say that. I mean, I really felt that. I think it's a compliment. So it's nothing bad.''
One notable absentee at Evian this year is Park, who is getting rehabilitation on her troublesome thumb.
But South Korean Hyo Joo Kim, the 2014 champion, is competing. She shot the lowest round in major history with a 61 during the first round here two years ago.
Americans Lexi Thompson, last year's runner-up, two-time major winner Stacy Lewis are also in action.