Lydia Ko holds off Danielle Kang to win at Boca Rio on LPGA

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

By JEFF BABINEAU

Associated Press

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) A terrific up-and-down for a scrambling par from a short-side bunker on the 72nd hole lifted Lydia Ko to a one-shot victory over Danielle Kang on Sunday at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio.

Kang, trying to become only the second player since 1966 to open a season with back-to-back LPGA Tour victories, shot a 4-under 68, one shot better than Ko, but fell one short.

Ko finished at 14-under 274, earning her 17th LPGA victory. Yuka Saso (67), the U.S. Women's Open champion, was third, two shots behind. Charley Hull (68) and Celine Boutier (69) tied for fourth.

Kang had a 20-foot downhill putt for birdie to force a playoff on the final hole, and even got a read from fellow competitor Celine Boutier, but Kang's slick putt started left and never drifted back. Ko then tapped in for the win.

Ko won for only the third time since 2016. The 24-year-old from New Zealand started winning LPGA events at the age of 15, and early on, made winning appear easy. ("Trust me," she said Sunday, "it was never easy.") At times she said she tried to play perfect golf, and make perfect swings, but has come to the realization that perfect golf doesn't exist on video games.

"Sometimes, like today," Ko said, "I'm going to hit some not-so-pretty ones."

The difference-maker Sunday came at the 15th hole. Ko and Kang were tied at 12 under, and Kang hit the better approach into the par 4. That's when Ko, who put a new putter in the bag this week, stroked a downhill, 25-foot right-to-left curler that tumbled in on its last roll. Kang had 12 feet and missed. Ko led at 13 under. Both players traded birdies at the par-5 16th, then closed with pars.

The past few years Ko, the former world No. 1, has had to reconstruct her confidence and try to simplify her game. She fell out of the top 50 in the rankings. It's more work these days to win, but still quite rewarding, nonetheless. Her coach, Sean Foley, texted Ko on Sunday morning with this: "Every day, every shot, you have a chance and a choice." The intention of the message: Go do something incredible.

Ko faced not one, but two tall challenges on the closing hole. Her drive found a left-side fairway bunker, leaving 171 yards in on the 415-yard par 4. She made great contact with a 5-iron, but her ball caught the edge of a greenside bunker. Her bunker shot from 15 yards pitched softly and rolled out to a foot below the hole. What were Ko's thoughts as the final hole unfolded?

"Please ... I don't want to play this hole again," she said, smiling. Ko picked up a winner's check for $300,000. Added her caddie, Derek Kistler, "I'm not sure if she was nervous or not on those bunker shots, but I wasn't. That final shot to a foot? Standard operating procedure for her. She's amazing."

Ko and Kang, her longtime friend - Kang refers to Ko as her "little sister" - traded pars for much of the cool, sunny South Florida afternoon, which left a handful of other players sticking around with a chance. Canada's Brooke Henderson went out in 5-under 31 and tacked on a birdie at the 10th to get to 10 under par. Japan's Saso turned in 3-under 33, getting to double-digits under par. Likewise, England's Hull made three early birdies to get to minus-10 and make her presence known.

But all three would cool. Saso birdied the ninth and didn't make another until the 17th. Hull played her first six holes of her final nine in 1 over. Henderson, 6 under at one point on the day, struggled with the putter, and came home in 37.

Kang, who won last week's season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, started the day two shots back and was trying to become only the second player since 1966 to sweep the first two events of the LPGA season. Ai Miyazato was the last to do it, in 2010, when the season opened in Asia. Before that, it was Marilynn Smith, who won the 1966 St. Petersburg Women's Open and Louise Suggs Delray Beach Invitational back-to-back.

Nelly Korda, who entered the week at No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings, tied for 20th, which means Jin Young Ko will retake the No. 1 spot this week. Ko is ranked third.

Ko is taking time off next week to get ready for the upcoming Asia and West Coast swings. For all the winning that she has done, she'd never won this early in a season. It's a long year, and she has work to do on her game, but she likes where she sits. She planned to be back in the gym Monday, and working with Foley on Tuesday.

"It's definitely good momentum going into the rest of the year." Ko said. "If somebody asked me, `Hey, do you think you're going to win this week? I'm not sure I would have said yes.'"

Lydia Ko, a winner once more. Call it an unexpected bonus.

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Updated January 30, 2022