BELLEAIR, Fla. – Lydia Ko’s 10th season on the LPGA has come to an end. The woman who swept the postseason awards last year at the CME Group Tour Championship won’t be in the field to defend her title in Naples, Florida. The former phenom’s glorious comeback campaign flamed out in 2023.
For all the out-of-the-blue success stories on the LPGA this year, Ko’s struggles are by far the most shocking development. Winless on the LPGA this season, Ko finished 101st on the CME points list. While the top 100 keep their fulls cards for next year, Ko can use her winner’s status to get into plenty of events next year.
A 16-year-old Ko said at the start of her LPGA career that she wouldn’t play past the age of 30. Now a decade into a career that’s yielded 19 LPGA titles, including two majors, and more than 100 weeks at No. 1, Ko knows she’s deep into the back nine of her career. The two-time Olympic medalist (silver and bronze) wants to play for gold next summer in Paris. She also wants to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. She’s two points shy of the 27 needed, which means two regular-season wins or one major title would get her there.
Did the pressure to reach the Hall get to her this year?
“I think so,” she said. “That would be a lie, I think, if you said no.”
The truth is Ko doesn’t know when she’ll call it quits. She could, as she said, win two tournaments and say, “peace out.” She could retire after the Olympics next year. She could get inspired by more success and decide to play til she’s 30.
What she does know is that she doesn’t want to come to the end and ask herself, what’s next?
“I want to have my second chapter, whatever the career may be, like, ready before I retire from competitive golf,” she said, “so that I’m not lost.”
Ko has talked to enough retired athletes to know that without a plan, an identity crisis could unfold. She wants to be prepared enough to leave the tour with a new sense of purpose. Lorena Ochoa, she said, is a role model for how to retire right.
What Ko knows for certain is that she’d like to finish the degree in psychology that she started eight years ago in South Korea. She has a year and a half left. Now married and living in California, the idea of finishing off that degree at a place like Stanford intrigues her.
There was a time when Ko wanted to study law, not because she wanted to become a lawyer, but because she found the law fascinating.
“I think some of my studies,” she said, “I could actually like completely divert into like something that I’m intrigued about more so than I’m going to make a business out of it.”
Last August at the LPGA stop in Portland, a struggling Ko got some advice from LPGA legend Juli Inkster. The Kiwi hadn’t finished in the top 10 since February, and her ball-striking was in the doldrums.
Inkster told Ko to set a goal of trying to break par every round. At that point, Ko hadn’t broken par in nine rounds on the LPGA.
“I think that really simplified it for me,” said Ko.
Lydia Ko of New Zealand reacts as she walks towards the second fairway during the final round of the 2023 BMW Ladies Championship on the Seowon Hills course at Seowon Valley Country Club in South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
The next month in South Korea, ahead of the BMW Ladies Championship, Ko met with Jin Young Ko’s swing instructor, Si Woo Lee for some help. Ko played the BMW on a sponsor exemption despite being defending champion.
Lee helped her to a third-place finish in South Korea, and she followed it up with a share of 11th in Malaysia. Ko, who will partner with Jason Day at the new Grant Thornton Invitational before officially heading into the offseason, feels like she finally has some positive momentum to carry into the winter break. Prior to that, Ko felt like she was stepping in quicksand, sinking further and further away from her goals.
For all the heartache, she’s in a good place.
“No matter what’s happened this year, obviously, it doesn’t summarize what’s happened in the past nine years,” said Ko, voicing a big-picture perspective that will serve her well.
At this time last year, Ko collected three Hall of Fame points at the CME: one for her tournament victory in Naples along with two points for winning the Vare Trophy and Rolex Player of the Year. She racked up five points for the year to get to 25.
Suddenly, a lifelong goal that once felt so far away seemed within reach.
Ko, however, is quick to point out that it wasn’t that long ago that she went three years on tour without winning. And that her last major victory came seven years ago at the 2016 ANA Inspiration. She knows better than anyone that the task ahead is doable but tough.
“I can’t even remember what I was doing a week ago, let alone in 2016,” she said. “A lot of things have changed.”
Whatever happens in the coming years, Ko is certain that she won’t become a part-time player. She won’t hang on or hang around if her heart doesn’t want to give 100 percent.
“If I’m doing it,” she said, “I want to do it properly. And I want to do without regrets.”