Golf 2019 highlights: The rise of Jin Young Ko to the top of ladies' golf

Jin Young Ko is on top of the world
Jin Young Ko is on top of the world

Jin Young Ko’s story did not begin this season, but four years ago, at Turnberry, during the Women’s British Open.

It was a remarkable week and also a ridiculous one. A week that saw light emerge from the dark and darkness descend from the skies.

Two weeks before, at St Andrews during the Open, the idea that Donald Trump, then flirting with the idea of running for president, would make an appearance at his newly acquired Turnberry had been refuted by members of his marketing team who insisted he didn’t want to deflect attention from the field.

Had we known of the phrase at the time we might have muttered “fake news”. Instead, we watched his helicopter buzz across the back nine during the first morning, turned at the sound of his phone ringing on the first tee and, later in the day, were drawn by morbid curiosity to the press conference he called in the hotel.

The scenes we witnessed there rather shocked us. As we listened to his casual put-downs, crass boasts and absurdly obvious lies, we sat rigid in our chairs, looking rather like a row of spinster aunts at a wedding reception when the DJ replaces Dancing Queen with Firestarter.

It seemed implausible that Trump, mouth open like a goldfish, posing for cameras like an old man with a vague idea of what teenagers do on Instagram, could run for the White House, never mind win the race.

Perhaps in sympathy with the mood, the weather on Friday was hideous.

I was roused by a ferocious wind that threatened to rip apart the static caravan I was staying in, the rain was unrelenting and the skies murderously dark. At 4pm that July afternoon it felt like 11pm in January.

We needed something, anything, to ease our bone-splintering shivers, prompted every bit as much by memories of Trump’s chilling windbagging as the plummeting temperatures.

And then, when we least expected it, our hopes were answered, emerging from the ink-black sea-and-sky backdrop to the dogleg of the 18th hole.

On the right was a caddie, his drenched woolly hat bowed into the wind, throwing alert glances, in spite of the conditions, at his yardage book and the land ahead of him.

On the left, upright and bouncy, with the hood of her red puffa jacket pulled high, walked Ko, apparently oblivious to the storm around her, as if, in actual fact, she were merely on a sight-seeing trip somewhere else, somewhere much calmer.

This 20-year-old Korean was not just a little bit unknown that week, she was a complete unknown, and yet, amid the filthiest of the weather she was completing a round of 71 which would see her head into the weekend in second.

Moments later bagman Jeff Brighton, a local who, brilliantly, had once caddied for Dennis Hopper on the Old Course, took shelter, rather pointlessly for he was wet through, under an umbrella.

“I’ve been caddying here for 15 years and I’ve walked this course thousands of times,” he gasped. “And that was as good a round as I have ever seen.”

Filled with notions of how links golf requires experience, and not a bit of it, but lots and lots and lots of it, we asked Brighton where his employer had honed her skills and he shrugged. Ko, it transpired, had played just one practice round.

“It’s really difficult,” she said with a bashful smile that belied her words. “So many different seasons in one day. Sometimes I have a five-club wind, but Jeff tells me where to hit it and I just hit it there.”

Through 27 holes of the weekend nothing changed (except the rain - that stopped). Ko led with nine holes to play and eventually only a charging Inbee Park, the world number one, could prevent the fairytale ending.

And then, as quickly as this beguiling golfer had emerged, she disappeared again.

***

Well … maybe she didn’t quite disappear. But nine LPGA starts in the next two years was almost nothing, enough to make one wonder if that week in Turnberry had been half nightmare-turned-reality and half dream-that-floated-away.

Because it should have been Ko who remained part of the story and instead, of course, it was the hotelier.

Then, in late 2017, she won the Hana Bank Championship, her tenth title on the KLPGA Tour and first on the LPGA. In 2018 she racked up 13 top tens, one of them a win, was crowned Rookie of the Year and ended it tenth in the world.

Her first win of 2019 was the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and the second was the ANA Inspiration, two titles that were somehow appropriate because there is something about Ko that provides optimism, an echo perhaps of that joyfully simple approach on the Scottish coastline.

By year’s end she had added two more victories: a second regular event (the Canadian Open) and a second major (the Evian Championship). In the former she went bogey-free through 72 holes and in the latter she ignored the rain (no surprises there) to turn a four-shot 54-hole deficit into a two-shot win. With the exception of one week she has been the world number one since the first week of April this year.

But what’s most striking, and also engaging, about Ko is that she achieves what we all strive to in both golf and life: she makes the acutely complex appear utterly simple.

For example, to watch the world’s best at Woburn in the Women’s British Open was to witness faces frequently creased by frowns. But not Ko.

It’s a quality Brighton, who worked with her again in the final six months of last year, appreciates.

“She does everything with a smile and she doesn’t look back,” he says. “She never worries about the past when she’s on the course and does a terrific job of staying in the moment. It’s one of the many reasons she excels under pressure.

“I was quite new to watching professional golfers at close quarters in 2015, but I said with confidence to anyone who would listen that she would be world number one and I think anyone who’s spent any time with her on the golf course would say the same.”

What a week it was and how the memory of it has resonated since.

A light that has brightened and a darkness that won’t go away.

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