Ko hoping second acts as Aussie boost
It wasn't the win she wished for and the 6000 gallery expected, but Lydia Ko hopes to use her second place at the New Zealand Women's Open in Christchurch yesterday as a boost for the upcoming, million dollar Australian Open.
The 16-year-old wasn't at her best at the Clearwater course, but would have won had it not been for unheralded South Korean Mi Hyang Lee shooting a phenomenal, course record, nine-under par 63.
Lee, the world No 265 and only South Korea's 94th best player, shot 72 on each of the first two rounds and didn't appear in anyone's final round predictions.
An eagle, seven birdies and just 26 putts later and the diminutive 20-year-old, who was at odds of 200-1 heading into the final day, had won her first professional tournament.
The crowds were all on the other side of the course watching Ko (70) battle out with American playing partners Beth Allen (70) and Anya Alvarez (73), but Lee's round was electric and her 63 got her to nine-under for the tournament - one ahead of Ko and two clear of Allen and Alvarez in third equal with another South Korean Seon Woo Bae (70).
Ko, Allen and Alvarez all had chances to test Lee's mettle and force a playoff by birdying the 18th, but Ko missed a 20-footer and the Americans missed the green then made bogeys.
Ko is two for two top ten finishes in 2014 now after finishing tied seventh at the LPGA Tour's season-opening Bahamas Classic last week.
While this week she didn't play as well as she has, it all bodes well for the LPGA Tour's US$1.2m (NZ$1.48m) Australian Open in Melbourne in a fortnight.
"I'm just going to rest up next week and prepare myself," she said.
"I love playing in Australia. I've played well in most of the Australian Opens."
Ko had a tough week. She was the centre of attention and everyone wanted a piece of her. She also had to battle with a nasty stomach bug and was on the verge of pulling out of the tournament.
She played well throughout, but just couldn't get a run of birdies going.
She drove accurately, her approach play was good and her putter not too bad, but she just wasn't quite at her best and, apart from her five-under back nine in the first round, she never tore the course up as she can.
So to beat 131 players all while feeling sick is obviously a good sign for the future and shows just how good she is.
Like Ko, Lee had been crook with a stomach bug, but got it sorted with Korean home cooking.
"Yesterday I ate Korean food and feel better. My host-family friend is Korean and they make Kimchi and Korean food and [I'm] better," she said.
She still, initially at least, had no confidence that she could bridge the eight shot deficit she had heading into the final round.
"[The eagle on the second hole] gave me more confidence in my game and on No 14 I saw the scoreboard and I was, maybe, seven-under there.
"[At that time I was thinking] I hoped I'd win, but Lydia is such a good player and I thought she was going to win.
"The last two days my shot was not bad, my putting was bad," Lee said.
"I can't concentrate because I was sick. I did some practice and it got better."
And while Lee's burnt the course up with her white-hot putter, Ko's was comparatively luke-warm yesterday.
She put it down to "just one of those things in golf" and was confident her touch on the greens - a genuine strength and one of the reasons Ko is the fourth best player in the world - would return soon.
Meanwhile, Lee was rapt to have won, though felt a tad apologetic for upsetting the crowd favourite and defending champion.
And while 6000 people saw Ko miss her birdie putt at the 18th, Lee was preparing for a playoff and only found out she won from her caddie and father.
"I didn't watch the playoff and my dad came around the corner and told me I won," Lee said.
"I'm so happy now. I can not believe."
Ko was pleased enough with second and gave credit to Lee for beating up the tough Clearwater course.
"Sixty-three is a pretty amazing score."