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How skipping a major helped Jin Young Ko return to the top of the LPGA

Jin Young Ko hits an iron shot at the Pelican Women's Championship last weekend. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

The No. 1 position in the Rolex Rankings has been the forbidden fruit of the LPGA Tour. Once players get a taste of the lead, they often have a hard time holding onto it. Jin Young Ko is well aware of the challenge.

Shanshan Feng relinquished her spot at the top in April of 2018 and now plans to retire at the end of the year. Ariya Jutanugarn, Inbee Park and Sung Hyun Park traded the No. 1 ranking for the rest of 2018 and into early 2019. Ko moved into the lead briefly in the summer of 2019, swapping spots with Park, until she grabbed hold of it for good at the 2019 Evian Championship. Ko’s 100-week reign finally came to an end in June, when Nelly Korda won the 2021 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and secured No. 1.

Ko responded with a victory at the Volunteers of America Classic over the Fourth of July, but after posting three finishes outside of the top 40, the gap between Korda and Ko at No. 2 had widened. Ko last finished outside the top 40 three times in a season in 2018.

So, after the Tokyo Olympics in August, Ko was looking to make some changes. To help her find her consistently dominant form, her team called Si Woo Lee, Ko’s swing coach from 2017 to April 2020. Ko flew from Tokyo to her home in South Korea to meet with Lee and begin the process that’s lifted her to a late-season surge of three wins in her last six starts.

The first step in Ko and Lee’s reunion was to get back to the roots of Ko’s swing.

“[We] reviewed all the swing videos since 2017,” Lee said via text. “Checked all the details that we missed over the last months we were not together.”

Lee laughed as he tried to recall the number of videos she’s sent him over the years. They discussed the differences they noticed in her swing evolution and trained together three to four days a week over six to seven weeks to help Ko, then an eight-time LPGA winner, get back on track.

“I had a lot of problems with my swing, so I can’t pick just one thing,” Ko said at the Cognizant Founder’s Cup. “Well, just basic one. Just keep my spine or just don’t move from right to left.”

Ko’s return to basics was a key tenet of Lee’s instruction.

“It is simple,” Lee said. “I always focus on the basic. I just add some tips that Jin Young could have more balance by using large muscles. It would help her to have simple and stiff golf swings. The tips for a world No. 1 player’s swing are using large muscles from basic skills.”

The AIG Women’s Open, the final major of 2021, began less than two weeks after the Olympics. Instead of having Ko rush back to competition, they decided to continue drilling her form, especially given the month-long gap between the AIG Women’s Open and the rest of the year’s tournaments.

“When we decided to not to attend the AIG Women’s Open,” Lee said, “Jin Young was not perfectly ready for the tournament.”

The British event has a foothold in Ko’s memory. In 2015, a 20-year-old Ko held a three-shot lead at the Ricoh British Women’s Open (as it was named then) before Hall of Famer Inbee Park chased her down. Ko finished as runner-up, but her career only ascended from there.

“It was a really difficult decision not to play the British Open, because I really love to play in the British,” Ko said at the Cambia Portland Classic in September.

Instead, Ko and Lee continued to work on her swing mechanics and toward Lee’s goal for the 26-year-old.

“My new target for her is raising her performance toward winning competitive ranks,” Lee said. “Final goal was No. 1 again — sooner than my expectations though.”

It took Ko five starts to return to the No. 1 spot, reaching the top with a playoff victory at the BMW Ladies Championship last month and holding onto it for two weeks. The victory marked the 200th by a South Korean in LPGA history and the 11th in Ko’s career.

The 2019 Player of the Year’s game has soared since her return to the course in September. In addition to her three wins on tour, she posted 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s, matching the tour record set by Annika Sorenstam in 2005 and So Yeon Ryu in 2016 and 2017. Ko credits a subtle adjustment for the meteoric rise.

“I can say my backswings are better than before changing my coach,” Ko said ahead of the Pelican Women’s Championship last weekend. “Ball contact or, like, everything … [is] better than before the Olympics.”

Ko's stats on tour before and after her training sessions with Lee.

This isn’t the first time Ko has made LPGA history after partnering with Lee. After a disappointing five-over opening round at the 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Ko called Lee so they could work together during her 24th birthday celebration in Chicago. Their adjustment was a small weight shift. The result was 114 holes of bogey-free golf from the AIG Women’s Open through the first round of the Cambia Portland Classic, an all-time mark on the LPGA and PGA Tour.

“He really knows my swing or putting,” Ko said. “So if I say anything, he knows my feeling or my mindset. So, yeah, that’s really comfy. He knows everything from me.”

Since Ko returned to the tour, she and Korda have played in the same field only at the Cognizant Founder’s Cup and the Pelican Women’s Championship. Korda, however, has been able to appreciate Ko’s play from afar.

“It’s honestly been really super exciting to watch,” the American golfer said. “You’re never going to be world No. 1 forever. You’re going to jump people, they’re going to jump you. It’s been super cool to see how dominant and well she’s been playing. Because if you’re out here and you’re playing week in and week out, you appreciate how good she is playing. So she’s been on a run, and it’s going to take some really, really good golf to catch her.”

Korda gained some separation with her victory at the Pelican Women’s Championship, but Ko remains in striking distance. Ko’s T-6 finish in Belleair, Fla. was her sixth consecutive top-10 result since September.

She credits much of that success to her swing coach. The camaraderie Lee and Ko have built over the years has motivated Lee to push her to even greater heights.

Ahead of the final two events of the season, Ko spent additional time with Lee. Even then, Ko noticed a back-to-basics adjustment she needed to make before she goes head-to-head with Korda in pursuit of defending her title at the CME Group Tour Championship this weekend.

“She is always Jin Young,” Lee said. “I first met her in 2017, early summer. She has never settled down or been satisfied with her present. She has a passion for winning. It makes me always dream of winning and teach her with passion as a coach.”

Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.