Jin Young Ko won twice as many tournaments as anyone else on the LPGA Tour this year. Her four victories included two majors. Her dominance was so thorough that she wrapped up the points-based award as player of the year with three tournaments remaining.
And with $1.5 million available to the winner in the season finale, none of that matters.
The CME Group Tour Championship is a free-for-all involving the richest payout in women’s golf. All that was required was getting to Tiburon Golf Club as one of the 60 players in the Race to CME Globe, in which points were accrued over 31 tournaments dating to January.
Start on Thursday, it’s a sprint.
That’s fine for Ko, provided “sprint” is merely a figure of speech.
The 24-year-old South Korean was playing in Taiwan three weeks ago when she felt a tug in her left ankle. She couldn’t swing. She asked the other players to play ahead of her to give it some time, and she managed to hit her shot. But then it hurt walking. Midway through the third round, she withdrew.
A cortisone shot, ice every night, some rest, and now she’s in Florida trying to put a proper end to a sensational year.
“Still worried a little bit,” Ko said. “Hopefully getting better, but then this week is the last, so it will be fine.”
It’s a conclusion unlike any other in the LPGA Tour.
The tour abandoned the format of resetting the points to give only the top 12 players a shot at winning the Race to CME Globe and its $1 million bonus, a reward for having played the best golf all year.
The objective this year was to qualify for the Tour Championship. Ko has the same chance at the $1.5 million check as Stacy Lewis, who finished 60th in the points standings and otherwise would have taken the rest of the year off to heal a rib injury in her lower back.
And because the money is official, any of the top 10 players who win have a mathematical chance to capture the season money title. Ko was so good this year that she is $721,791 ahead of Jeongeun Lee6 on the money list. Any other year, and Ko already would have wrapped up the money title.
Just not this one. And she’s OK with that.
“That is really great motivation to me, so I will keep trying harder,” she said.
It should be easier to follow. A year ago, Lexi Thompson won the tournament and the $500,000 in official money, while Ariya Jutanugarn won the Race to CME Globe and the $1 million bonus. The year before that, the roles were reversed — Jutanugarn won the tournament, Thompson won the points race.
Brooke Henderson wasn’t a big fan of the new concept when she first heard about it.
“I had worked so hard the last few years to be in those top positions to have a chance at winning the big money,” said Henderson, who is No. 2 in the standings with two victories this year. “But at the end of the day, I think it’s great for golf to see the purses increase, and to have an opportunity like this is unlike any other event we’ve ever played.”
The $1.5 million prize represents more than Thompson has won all year.
Ko, meanwhile, is still going to collect her share of awards this week as part of the season-ending celebration. She already was presented a $100,000 bonus for having the most top-10 finishes (12 in 21 events), winning a tiebreaker because of her four victories.
She will get the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award Thursday night at the awards dinner, along with the Annika Major Award for having the best record in the majors this year. Barring a collapse, she will win the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average.
And she still has the inside track to the LPGA money title. That requires the most work because everyone starts from scratch and so many players are lined up behind her in the standings if Ko falters.
A third-place finish still would be enough for Ko to become the first woman to make $3 million in a season.
Nelly Korda, one of seven players with multiple victories this year, summed up the chase for the $1.5 million prize in the simplest of terms.
“To win this tournament, you have to play good golf,” Korda said. “At the end of the day, whoever wins deserves it.”