Lydia Ko’s 2017 has kind of been like landing in a bunker and having a hard time getting out.
The former World No. 1 hasn’t had a victory in over a year, sits in 12th place in the Race to the CME Globe after winning the $1 million prize in 2014 and 2015, and contending for it last year.
Thursday, though, Ko holed out for par from a bunker on No. 18 to finish off a 5-under 67 and is tied for third after the first round of the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburón Golf Club at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort.
“It is good to be able to pay some solid golf these past few weeks and put myself in better positions going into the weekends and going into the final round,” said Ko, who’s finished second, tied for 11th, and tied for fifth in her last three events. “I think the more I do that, I think the confidence kind of builds up. Golf is such a confidence game. If you start making birdies or putts and playing well, it builds up. That momentum kind of carries on.”
Sarah Jane Smith and Pieyun Chien shot 66s to share the lead. Sung Hyun Park, Suzann Pettersen, Karine Icher and Azahara Munoz also had 67s, and Park overtook Lexi Thompson, who shot 1 under, for the top spot in the Race to the CME Globe.
On No. 18, Ko had taken a drop after her approach went over the green and near a TV tower. But her pitch flew over the green and into the bunker.
“Oh, great. What am I going to make?” Ko said to herself. “Luckily it was the perfect place to hit it for a 4.”
Smith, who has never won on tour, has three straight top-15 finishes, including a tie for fifth with Ko in Japan. She eagled No. 6 and had four other birdies with no bogeys. Chien had birdie-birdie starts to both nines and added two others — one on each side.
“It was a bit rough in the beginning, but holed some nice putts for par and sort of kept it going, and then made some good birdies coming in,” Smith said.
Since last year’s CME Group Tour Championship, Ko has parted ways with swing coach David Leadbetter, and yet another caddie, and also made a club change from Callaway to PXG.
Ko, just 20, has had 11 top-10s this year, but that’s not how she’s measured after winning 14 tournaments between 2012 and 2016. She hasn’t won in 34 events.
But Ko has had better finishes since placing second in Indianapolis in early September — and that followed missing cuts in two of three tournaments. She tied for third at the Evian Championship, finished second at Swinging Skirts, and tied for fifth in Japan.
“I realized, hey, patience is such a big key,” she said. “Week in, week out, the talent doesn’t change that much, but if you feel confident and you’re out there committing to your shots, then you’re able to play the best golf you can.”
Some of Ko’s best golf has happened in Naples. She shot a 62 in the second round last year, and that followed up winning both the tournament and the CME Globe in 2014, tying for seventh and winning the Globe in 2015.
Thursday, she eagled No. 17 from 15 feet before pulling out the par save from the bunker.
“I like that we can drive here,” said Ko, who lives in Orlando. “Mom can pack some Korean food from Orlando and drive here. The fans are great. … It’s close to my home base in the U.S. and it’s always in really good condition.”