NAPLES, Fla. – Leona Maguire took a very different path to the LPGA than Lydia Ko, ruling the women’s amateur scene as a standout at Duke for years. A dozen years ago, a 27-year-old Maguire took on a 13-year-old Ko at the World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina.
“She was a phenomenon when she was getting ready to turn pro,” said Maguire. “I remember her short game was incredible. A wedge shot did not go beyond 3.4 feet.
Players still marvel at Ko, who is enjoying a great career resurgence at the age of 25. After a second round of 66, Ko leads the field by five points at the CME Group Tour Championship at 13-under 131. A win here would cement her first LPGA Player of the Year award since 2015, not to mention a payout of $2 million.
Ko said she wanted to finish the season with no regrets and play freely.
“I think if I play freely,” Ko said, “I’m not hesitant. I control how the shot goes. I think it’s just kind of stress-free that way.
“If I miss it, hey, I’ll miss one here and there. So it’s just a better place for me to be. And obviously when the nerves kick in that part is a lot harder, but I think when I was struggling I got more and more careful and tried to control the ball and make it work.
While she didn’t mathematically win the Vare trophy for the low-scoring average, it’s actually a foregone conclusion. To get back to No. 1 in the world, she would need to win and allow Nelly Korda to finish solo in 21st or worse. In 2015, at the age of 17, Ko became the youngest player to ever reach No. 1 in the world – male or female.
Korda is tied for third with Anna Nordqvist, Gemma Dryburgh and Nasa Hataoka, six strokes back. Hyo Joo Kim is second only at 8 under. Maguire, a first time winner this season, is 6 under with Amy Yang.
Top Korda, wearing her new signature line this week with J.Lindeberg, made four birdies on the front nine and parred the back nine holes after the putter went dry.
“They used quite a bit of the Sunday pins,” said Korda, who won the Pelican LPGA Championship last week.
“I’d say, 16, 17, they put them in the back, just above a bunker. If you get to one of those ledges that can break either way, it just happens that you don’t roll them in every once in a while.
Nelly Korda smiles on the 18th green during the second round of the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on November 18, 2022 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
A two-time winner on tour this season and the 2014 CME Champion, Ko leads the LPGA in total strokes won per round and strokes won putts per round this season. In her participation in this event, she had made 201 putts 10 feet or longer this season, eight more than any other player on tour.
Ko leads the tour in putts per green in relegation with an average of 1.72. She did the same in 2016 (1.71).
“I think in the period when I did less well, my short game got better,” said Ko. “So it’s good and bad, but I don’t feel like I’m the best putter in the world. I feel there is so much room for improvement.”
Minjee Lee is one point behind Ko in the POY race. The Aussie bogeyed the last hole to shoot 68. She is 5 under for the tournament with a share of 10th.
When he competed in the event, Ko was 26-under at the CME for the past two years, compared to Lee who was 24-under.
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek