Jin Young Ko had dominated throughout the early season, only her second on the LPGA Tour. Third place or better in four of five events. No. 1 on the money list. Easily the best finisher on tour this year.
Now, the 23-year-old South Korean can add a major championship to her lustrous resume.
Playing with the calm and precision of a diamond cutter, she shot a two-under-par 70 Sunday in the final round of the ANA Inspiration, keeping her pursuers at arm’s length at Mission Hills Country Cub.
She finished at 10-under 278, three shots ahead of fellow South Korean Mi Hyang Lee, who was the only player to challenge Ko while shooting 70. Lexi Thompson, with a closing 67, finished alone in third at six under, but she finished substantially earlier than the leaders and never really factored into the finish.
Carlotta Ciganda (68) and second-round leader I.K. Kim (74) finished tied for fourth at five under.
“I can believe now,” Ko said after winning, aided by an interpreter. “I had really great round. I’m really happy.”
Ko, who has four LPGA victories including one before she became a member of the tour last year, began the final round with a one-stroke lead over Kim and three over Lee and Danielle Kang. None of those players could overtake her, though Lee’s ever-smiling determination got her within a stroke late in the day.
Kang cut her deficit to two with a birdie on the second hole and appeared ready to make a move, but she effectively fell out of contention with an out-of-bounds triple-bogey on the par-four third and shot 73 to finish at four under, tied for sixth.
As she had the day before when she began the third round with a three-shot lead that dissolved in the first four holes, Kim struggled from the onset and never got into any rhythm. She never shook the look of someone whose puppy had run away, had to scramble for pars on several holes and couldn’t coax the birdie opportunities she had into the hole. A double-bogey seven on the 11th hole, after her second shot wound up in a tree, was the effective end of her mission to erase the disappointment of 2012. That year, she missed a one-foot putt that would have won this event, then lost in a playoff.
Ko has set an extraordinary standard with her finishing scores this year. Her fourth-round scores: 64, 68, 69, 65, 65 and 70, a stunning average of 66.8. Sunday, the score wasn’t as dramatic, but, with a few exceptions, the play was. Ko found the middle of the fairways off the tee all afternoon, and when she made a mistake, she often erased it.
Now she’s projected to move to No. 1 in the world Monday.
“My caddie helped me on fairways and greens,” Ko said of David Brooker, who has caddied for three champions in this event. “I just keep focus.”
On the third hole, after hitting her second shot into a bunker left and short of the green, she got up and down for par.
She still made birdie on the par-five 11th after her second shot left her with a tricky pitch shot from the rough, with her stance in the bunker.
On the 13th, Ko did wobble with a bogey that dropped her lead to two over Lee, and then she came to the 14th. She had hit a tee shot into the water fronting the green Saturday, double-bogeyed the hole and then bogeyed the 15th to turn a four-shot lead into one. Sunday, she hit her tee shot to 18 feet and made par.
But when Ko bogeyed No. 15 from the sand, Lee was one shot from the lead. Then on 16, Ko split the fairway on the 407-yard hole, hit her second shot to 10 feet and made the birdie putt to get back to nine under and push the lead back to two.
When Lee, playing in the group ahead of Ko, missed the fairway on the par-five closing hole, had to lay up and ended up with a par, Ko could play the hole conservatively. She laid up short of the water fronting the green with her second shot, hit a wedge to about 12 feet, then drained the birdie putt for extra measure.
Ko, the rookie of the year in 2018, hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens, numbers that added up to a $450,000 first-place check and her second victory of the season, following last month’s win in Phoenix.