RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — It’s a rare thing when a wire-to-wire, first-time major winner isn’t the biggest story of the day. Something truly extraordinary has to happen to overshadow that type of story.
On Sunday at the ANA Inspiration, the extraordinary became a reality.
Lydia Ko wasn’t supposed to be a factor in the final round of golf’s first major. She began the day too far behind — eight strokes! — and leader Patty Tavatanakit was playing too well. It should’ve been a sleepy Sunday in the Coachella Valley.
Then Ko lit Mission Hills Country Club on fire. She made an eagle, eight birdies and nine pars. Tally them all up and you had the lowest final round in major championship history — 10-under 62.
“It just shows it doesn’t matter how far back you are, you can always go for it,” Ko said. “As long as you have one hole in front of you, there is always a chance to make birdies.”
The 23-year-old made them in bunches. She made birdie at No. 1 and eagle at No. 2. Birdie at No. 4 got her further into red figures. When her birdie putt on No. 9 dropped into the hole, Ko turned in 29, a Mission Hills record.
That’s when the buzz started to build. Suddenly, records were within reach.
When Ko made the turn, there was a distinct confidence to her strut. Like a purebred with blinders on, her focus never wavered. With each pure iron and center-cut putt, the unthinkable suddenly came into focus.
Ko birdied the 10th. Then the 11th to get to nine under. Tavatanakit’s once insurmountable lead was within reach.
Ko grinded out pars on 13 and 14, holding steady at 15 under for the week. She fired her drive at the 15th into the right rough. At that moment, Tavatanakit stepped to the adjacent 13th tee.
The two were no more than 100 yards away from one other. Like Tyson and Holyfield, they’d been trading punches all day, but given golf’s non-contact traditions, this was the closest proximity they shared during the final round.
Tavatanakit had just carded birdie on No. 12. Right on script, Ko fired an iron into the green and holed her putt for birdie. Game on.
Normal times would have sent the crowd into a frenzy. But with only members, media and volunteers allowed to walk the grounds, the only sounds were the occasional shutter click of cameras and a lone prop plane circling above in the desert sky.
“It’s insane,” said Ko’s family friend who identified himself as Max. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It was the final birdie of the day for either woman. Matching pars coming down the stretch secured the Dinah Shore Trophy for Tavatanakit and the major scoring record for Ko.
The day was unlikely for a number of reasons. Ko, the former world No. 1, showed there’s plenty to be hopeful about in career 2.0. Tavatanakit, meanwhile, had never won before on this stage. On Sunday, each sent her game to the next level.
“She’s Lydia Ko for a reason,” phenom Gabi Ruffels said of the performance.
According to Ruffels, players on the course sensed something special brewing. With leaderboards across the grounds, Ko’s charge (and Tavatanakit’s dominance) was all the buzz.
It was natural to try comparing Ko’s day with the firepower that had gotten her to the top of the game years ago. But she made it clear that misses the point.
“I hope it’s not the sense that I’m back to a position where I was or where I could be,” Ko said. “To be honest, I just want to be the best version of myself right now.”
On an oppressively hot Sunday at the ANA Inspiration, that best version of herself was better than anyone who’s come before her. No one — not Sörenstam, not Ochoa, not Wright — has fired a lower score to close a major championship.
While the Lydia Ko of old might not be “back,” the new Lydia Ko gave us much to be excited about.