February 22nd, 2024

Ko takes two-shot lead into final round of LPGA season opener

By Jeff Babineau, The Associated Press on January 20, 2024.

Lydia Ko, from New Zealand, watches tee shot on the first hole during the first round of the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Kevin Kolczynski)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Lydia Ko moved closer to her first victory in 14 months, shooting a 4-under 68 on Saturday to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the LPGA Tour’s season-opening Tournament of Champions.

The 26-year-old from New Zealand is seeking her 20th career victory and first since the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship in 2022. A win would also leave Ko one victory short of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

On the heels of a flawless second-round 67, Ko went bogey-free for the second consecutive day at Lake Nona in chilly-for-Florida conditions with temperatures around 10 Celsius. It helps that she has played the course in nearly every type of weather.

Her closest pursuer is 19-year-old second-year pro Alexa Pano, who struggled at times from tee to green but exhibited a crisp short game to stay close to the lead in the elite field of LPGA winners from the past two years.

Pano shot 67, the day’s second-best round. U.S. Solheim Cup player Ally Ewing (68) was alone in third, four shots back. Scotland’s Gemma Dryburgh (71), Mexico’s Gaby Lopez (71) – a former TOC champion – and Japan’s Ayaka Furue (73) will start Sunday five shots behind.

Defending champion Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont., (71) was tied for seventh, six shots behind.

Ko, a former world No. 1, won three times in 2022 but was winless last year. In 20 starts, she had only two top-10 finishes, and she didn’t even qualify to defend her Tour Championship title.

Success, and winning, seemed a distant memory that was fading quickly.

“It’s crazy, because when you’re not performing well you wonder if you’re ever going to perform well,” Ko said. “It’s not just one round, but they keep adding up. As much as sometimes you try and brush it off and say it’s only golf … like, I dream about golf. I dream about missing my tee time. That’s how much golf is – knock on wood that never happens – but that’s how much it means to me.”

On Saturday, Ko – who lives at Lake Nona – took advantage with birdies on two early par-5s and on the short par-4 14th, where she got up and down from a greenside bunker.

Pano recorded her first bogey-free round on the LPGA Tour. She was between clubs on several approach shots and wasn’t coming up with the right solutions. Fortunately, her short game saved her.

Pano won for the first time in 2023, capturing the ISPS Handa World Invitational in Ireland in a playoff on her 19th birthday. Already, there is a big difference between this season and last for the teenager from Massachusetts.

As a rookie, Pano wasn’t in the biggest events. As an LPGA winner, she gets to play this week and in all the majors this year. And she found a way to post an impressive score Saturday without her best ball-striking.

“I did work very hard this offseason, and I think it’s just showing up this week,” Pano said. “It’s a course that I’m a little bit familiar with as well. The energy just feels good this week.”

In the 48-player celebrity division, former NHL standout Jeremy Roenick took a two-point lead in the modified Stableford format. Competing alongside Ko and Furue in the final group, Roenick caught LPGA great Annika Sorenstam on the back nine to take the lead.

“Everything is about staying composed, and when I played hockey, I wasn’t so composed,” Roenick said. “It’s kind of a new thing for me, but we’re good. I’m happy with where I am. I battled really hard. I think I did some pretty good things today that I had never done on the golf course, which I think is really going to help me tomorrow.”

Sorenstam and former major league pitcher Derek Lowe are tied for second among the celebrities. Lowe defeated Sorenstam in a playoff two years ago.

AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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