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Jin Young Ko in league of her own: 5 takeaways from LPGA Tour Championship

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NAPLES, Fla. — The CME Group Tour Championship’s much-anticipated duel between Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda for the LPGA Tour’s Rolex Player of the Year delivered over the weekend. After the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world won each of the last two tournaments heading into the final event of the LPGA season, the stage was set for one last battle.

Ko emerged victorious at Tiburón Golf Club, shooting a 63 on Sunday to finish at a tournament-record 23-under par and defeat Nasa Hataoka by one stroke. The win was the South Korean’s 12th career LPGA title and earned her Player of the Year honors for the second time in three years.

Here are my five takeaways from the tour finale.

1. Jin Young Ko puts exclamation point on three-year LPGA reign

Ko has ten victories over the last three years, the most of any golfer on the LPGA Tour over that span. The next closest is Nelly Korda with six. With the victory Sunday, Ko became one of 14 golfers to win two Player of the Year awards in the LPGA’s history, and she accomplished it in 81 starts. Ko backed up her win at the 2020 CME Group Tour Championship, becoming the first player to defend her title and the first to win five times in a single year since Ariya Jutanugarn in 2016, doing so over her final nine starts of the season.

Ko accomplished all of this despite playing on an injured left wrist; she spent a half hour with a physio, and instead of warming up on the range as she usually would, the 26-year-old only took swings with a 52-degree wedge to get loose. The lack of preparation did not stop her from displaying the full prowess of her game, hitting a mind-numbing 63 consecutive greens in regulation to close out the tournament.

“Honestly, it was definitely the ‘Jin Young Ko Show’ today,” Korda said. “It was really cool to witness. Obviously, I wish I could have kind of given it a better run.”

When Ko won $1.2 million last year, she bought a house in Dallas with the money. This year, she said the $1.5 million winner’s check is going into her savings account.

2. Nasa Hataoka shines, eyes 2022 majors

The five-time Tour winner birdied 17 of the last 28 holes to nearly catch Ko on Sunday, finishing just one stroke behind her. But instead of getting caught up in the duel between Ko and Korda, the world No. 8 stuck to her plan at Tiburón Golf Club.

“I have one thing in my mind — routine,” Hataoka explained. “There were a few times where there was a lot of pressure, but I was able to think simple, which helped me a lot today.”

The 22-year-old finished as runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Open in June, losing in a playoff to Yuka Saso at Olympic Club. It was the second time Hataoka had lost in a playoff at a major after the 2018 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. The Japanese star continues to use a U.S. Women’s Open ball marker to remind her how close she was to her goal of winning a major in her first five years on tour.

“This year was the fifth year, so I really wanted to win [a major] this year,” Hataoka said. “Obviously it won’t change, my goal won’t change. I still have strong feelings for winning majors.”

3. Nelly Korda’s historic season overshadowed

The world No. 1 maintained perspective on her season as she walked off the course in Naples on Sunday. The four-time Tour winner and Olympic gold medalist in 2021 became the first American to surge to the top of the Rolex World Rankings since Stacy Lewis in 2014. While losing out on Player of the Year was a disappointment, Korda learned this year just how much she can accomplish on the LPGA Tour.

“If I set my mind to it, I can do anything,” Korda said. “I had a good year, and I’m just going to go back and kind of think about my year and kind of let it kind of soak in, which I’m super excited about, and get ready for next year.”

Korda would’ve gone home with even more hardware if not for the LPGA’s Vare Trophy minimum requirement of 70 rounds played during the year. With her 17-under finish at the Tour Championship, the 23-year-old averaged 68.774 in 2021, besting Ko’s 68.866 for the lowest score on tour. Korda finished 62 rounds this year, while Ko played 67. But it was Lydia Ko who won the Vare Trophy after finishing with the third-best scoring average of 63.329 in 73 rounds of play.

Adding to the historic nature of Korda and Ko’s battle this weekend, 2021 marked the first time in the 72-year history of the LPGA that two players averaged scores in the 68s in a single season. Only Annika Sorenstam in 2002 (68.7) and 2004 (68.7) and Sei Young Kim in 2020 (68.69) have accomplished that feat previously.

4. A streak continues at the Tour Championship

Players ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the world have won eight of the last nine Tour Championships. The best and brightest on tour continue to shine at Tiburón Golf Club since the tournament moved there in 2013.

The four players tied for the lead going into Sunday’s final round — Celine Boutier, Hataoka, Korda and Ko — all won on tour this season. Boutier, Korda and Ko combined for the last six LPGA Tour victories, while Hataoka won twice. The final grouping of Hataoka, Ko and Korda featured three of the four players who won multiple times in 2021, combining for ten wins.

5. CME’s new purse shows increased commitment to women’s golf

On Friday, the LPGA announced its new schedule for 2022, headlined by CME increasing the tournament purse to $7 million in 2022, up from $5 million this year. In addition, the winner will receive a new first-place prize of $2 million, more than Ko’s and Sei Young Kim’s $1.5 million prize in 2019.

The investment in the Tour Championship has surged in recent years, with the first-place check growing 300 percent from $500,000 in 2018 to $2 million in 2022.

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.