NAPLES, Fla. – Leona Maguire took a vastly different road to the LPGA than Lydia Ko, ruling the women’s amateur scene for years as a standout at Duke. A dozen years ago, a 27-year-old Maguire teed it up with a 13-year-old Ko at the World Amateur Team Championship in Argentina.
“She was a phenom then getting ready to turn pro,” said Maguire. “I remember her short game was incredible. A wedge shot didn’t go outside 3, 4 feet.”
Players still marvel at Ko, who at 25 is enjoying a magnificent career resurgence. After a second-round 66, Ko leads the field by five at the CME Group Tour Championship at 13-under 131. A victory here would shore up her first LPGA Player of the Year award since 2015, not to mention a $2 million payday.
Ko said she wanted to finish the season with no regrets, playing freely.
“I think when I play freely,” said Ko, “I’m not being tentative. I’m controlling how the shot is going to go. I think that way it’s just a little bit stress-free.
“If I do miss it, hey, like, I’m going to miss one here and there. So it’s just a better place for me to be at. And obviously when the nerves kick in, that bit is a lot harder, but I think when I was struggling, I got more and more tentative and trying to control the ball and trying to make it work.”
While she hasn’t mathematically clinched the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, it’s basically a done deal. To rise to No. 1 in the world again, she’d have to win and have Nelly Korda finish solo 21st or worse. In 2015, Ko became the youngest player to ever reach No. 1 in the world – male or female – at age 17.
Korda sits in a share of third with Anna Nordqvist, Gemma Dryburgh, and Nasa Hataoka, six strokes back. Hyo Joo Kim sits alone in second at 8 under. Maguire, a first-time winner this season, is at 6 under with Amy Yang.
Top-ranked Korda, who is wearing her new signature line with J.Lindeberg this week, made four birdies on the front nine and then parred the last nine holes after the putter went dry.
“They’ve kind of used a lot of the Sunday pins,” said Korda, who won last week’s Pelican LPGA Championship.
“I would say, 16, 17, they kind of put them in the back just over a bunker. When you kind of get on one of those ridges that it can break either way, like, it just happens that occasionally you don’t roll them in.”
Nelly Korda gives a smile on the 18th green during the second round of the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on Nov. 18, 2022 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Ko, a two-time winner on tour this season and the 2014 CME champion, leads the LPGA in strokes gained total per round and strokes gained putting per round this season. Coming into this event she had made 201 putts of 10 feet or longer this season, eight more than any other player on tour.
Ko tops the tour in putts per green in relegation with a 1.72 average. She did the same in 2016 (1.71).
“I think during the times when I wasn’t hitting it as good, my short game improved,” said Ko. “So it’s good and bad, but I don’t feel like I’m the best putter in the world. I feel like there is so much room for improvement.”
Minjee Lee trails Ko by one point in the POY race. The Aussie bogeyed the last hole to shoot 68. She’s 5 under for the tournament in a share of 10th.
Coming into the event, Ko was 26 under at the CME over the past two years compared to Lee at 24 under.
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek