Lydia Ko, in 2015 after two long years as a professional, finally got the monkey off her back when, at 17, she became the youngest player of either gender to win her first major. Now the question is, can the 18-year-old wunderkind chalk up her second consecutive elite title as the first major of the 2016 golf season, the ANA Inspiration, kicks off.
If momentum and confidence have anything to do with it, the rest of the field at Mission Hills is in trouble.
"Last week was probably the most solid I've hit to what I can remember. But in saying that I can't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, so there goes my memory," Ko told reporters on Tuesday about her four-shot win at the Kia Classic, the final tuneup for the ANA. "I played and I thought I hit the ball really solid last week. So even with a driver or if I was in a tough condition I still felt like I could get towards the pin and give myself a good opportunity."
Ko’s road to the erstwhile Dinah Shore/Kraft Nabisco may include just that one tour victory, but she’s captured three additional top-10 finishes in five starts and defended her New Zealand Women’s Open title in February. The Kia was her 11th career tour win, which firmly secured her hold on the world No. 1 ranking and put the bullseye squarely on her back this week.
For sure, a pair of former No. 1s had Lydia on the mind during a recent practice round.
Stacy Lewis recounted a recent conversation she had with 2010 ANA titleholder (along with four other majors) Yani Tseng.
"We played nine holes together," 2011 ANA champ Stacy Lewis recalled for reporters on Wednesday. "And she's like, ‘Can I ask you a serious question?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’
"She said, ‘Why is Lydia so good?’"
When this happens..and you still win by four shots. Lydia Ko now has 11 wins on Tour. She turns 19 next month MT pic.twitter.com/8S8m8cAu6k— Lady Golfer Magazine (@LadyGolferMag) March 29, 2016
It’s a question the best in the world are likely asking themselves as they prepare for Thursday’s opening round. Lewis believes it’s because Ko is in the zone that she and Tseng have been in — the one "where you can do no wrong, and if you miss a shot you're like, 'Oh, okay, I can go get that up-and-down,'" Lewis said.
"You just have a lot of players that are so young that are in that mindset that they're not scared. They're not afraid of hitting a bad shot," she added. "They’re fine trying to drive it 280 down the fairway and they're okay if it's in the rough. You've got these fearless young kids that have changed the game and they've changed the way women play golf."
It was a sentiment that Ko unwittingly foreshadowed a day earlier.
"I thought I hit the ball really solid last week," Ko said. "So even with a driver or if I was in a tough condition I still felt like I could get towards the pin and give myself a good opportunity."
Now, it’s Ko’s opportunity to better her lackluster record at Rancho Mirage. Her best finish was a T25 in 2013 before she turned pro. She has taken a step backward each year since, posting T29 in 2014 and T51 last year.
With the pressure of that first major win off, Ko is just pleased to enter this week with no "youngest ever" or other marks to break.
"I was very fortunate and very special to win the last major of the year last season," she said. "I'm glad that especially coming into this week there is no, ‘Hey, you could break Annika's under-par record or you could break the youngest major record.’ I don't think there is any record … No statistics, please.
"That's one of the things I'm looking forward to this week," she said. "I’m just going to think of it as any other four-day event and just have fun out there and hopefully have some good golf."