Choi ends title drought, as Ko takes over No. 1

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Choi ends title drought, as Ko takes over No. 1

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With a weight off her shoulders, Choi Na-yeon savors victory at the LPGA Coates Golf Championship on Saturday, local time, at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club on Saturday, local time, in Ocala, Fla. Choi won her first title in more than two years. [AP/NEWSIS]

Choi Na-yeon of South Korea won the first tournament of the year on the LPGA tour for her first title in more than two years, while Korean-New Zealander Lydia Ko tied for second place and became the youngest player ever to move to the top of the world rankings.

Choi was clearly caught up in the emotion of her first victory since late 2012. She topped the PGA money list in 2010 and won the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, but had fallen out of the world top 15.

“I was so nervous out there,’’ said Choi, who recorded her eighth U.S. LPGA Tour victory. “I waited so long for this moment.’’

Choi, one of the game’s elite players before the two-year victory drought set in, admitted the pressure to succeed wore her down to the point that she stopped reading Korean sports websites and considered downgrading her mobile phone plan so she could not download stories about her.

“I had a lot of stress,’’ Choi said. “Even if I was in the top 10 or top five, not many people would say you did a good job if you finished as runner-up. They say you are a loser and that hurt me a lot.’’

With a victory practically in her grip, Ko had to settle for half of the spoils on Saturday - though it represented a significant piece of golf history nonetheless.

After reclaiming the lead late in the final round, the 17-year-old Ko double-bogeyed the 71st hole in the inaugural Coates Golf Championship to lose by a shot to Choi.

However, Ko became the youngest player of either gender to climb to world No. 1, breaking the record set by Tiger Woods by almost four years.

As the ramifications of the distinction finally took hold, the sting of defeat at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club wasn’t quite so bad. The notion of celebrating, which first set her back for a moment, didn’t seem so crazy after all.

“It’s going to be good,’’ Ko said. “I was here to focus on the tournament itself, but I guess I got a great outcome at the end of the day, too.’’

After leading by as many as four shots on the front nine, Ko trailed Choi by a shot as they played the par-3 15th. With Choi facing a 6-footer for birdie, Ko slammed in an improbable 60-footer and Choi three-putted for a two-shot swing.

The teenager’s lead didn’t last long. Ko drove into a fairway bunker, then fanned a hybrid shot into a stand of pine trees down the right side of the 17th hole, scrambling to make a double bogey.

As the steadier Choi finished with a 4-under 68 and 16-under total, Ko had to salvage a par on the 18th to finish in a three-way tie at 15 under, but it was good enough to secure a piece of the record book.

Woods, previously the youngest golfer to reach No. 1, was 21 years, five months, 16 days when he reached the top in 1997.

Ko reached the mark three years, eight months, 14 days earlier.

The men’s rankings date to 1986 and the women’s list is nine years old.

“It’s a nice consolation, if you want to call it that,’’ said Ko’s swing coach, David Leadbetter.

Ko finished with a 71 to match Jessica Korda (66) and Ha Na Jang (70) at 15 under.

Ko, whose pulse rate seems to be frozen at about 75 beats per minute whether she’s making an eagle or double bogey, hardly seemed derailed by the 71st-hole meltdown. Her indefatigable nature is her biggest asset, Leadbetter said.

“We sent her to anger management school to learn how to get angry,’’ he said with a laugh.

As for Ko, her ascent seemed ordained when she won her first tour title as an amateur at age 15, the youngest in tour history.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,’’ American star Stacy Lewis said of the new No. 1. “It was just a matter of time.’’

Ko, a native of South Korea who moved to New Zealand as a youngster, unseated Inbee Park in the top spot.

“She’s probably the straightest player out here,’’ said Park, who tied for 17th. “The golf gets easier if you hit the ball straight and you can roll the ball in.’’

BY KIM BONG-MOON, AP [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]
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