Is there gold in Ko’s future?
RIO DE JANEIRO — Golf being a game for a lifetime, Lydia Ko could be excused for never having made an ace. She’s just 19, remember.
Then again, she has won 14 times on the LPGA Tour. She is the youngest player to win two major championships. She is the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
And she’s never had a hole-in-one?
That changed for Ko on Friday in the third round of the women’s Olympic golf tournament. And what a time to do it. Ko holed a 7-iron shot from 140 yards at the par-3 eighth hole to help her shoot 29 over the first nine holes and finish with a 65 that vaulted her into contention for Olympic gold.
In blustery conditions that became more pronounced in the afternoon, Ko’s score was the best of the day and moved her up 20 spots into a tie for second, 2 strokes behind South Korea’s Inbee Park.
“To do that at the Olympics, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Ko, who is from New Zealand. “But to put myself back into good position going into tomorrow, I think was a job well done going forward.”
Ko’s exploits help set up what could be a potentially blockbuster final day for Olympic golf, which will get started earlier than usual due to expected bad weather Saturday afternoon. A two-tee start will begin at 6 a.m. ET with Ko’s final pairing going off at 7:39 a.m. ET.
She will be in that final group with Park, 28, who spent a good bit of time at No. 1 in the world and has 17 LPGA Tour titles, including seven major championships. A thumb injury has kept her from performing at her best this year, but Park has responded nicely during the Olympics, shooting scores of 66-66-70 to position herself for a gold medal.
Joining them in the last group will be American Gerina Piller, who has never won on the LPGA Tour but has played inspired golf this week. At a Tuesday news conference, Piller got emotional just talking about the idea of getting on the medal stand. Now, after a third-round 68, she could be just a day away.
And that is not to count out the likes of Shanshan Feng of China or Charley Hull of Great Britain or a couple of other South Koreans: Amy Yang and In Gee Chung. They are all within striking distance of a medal, potentially even gold.
All of that seemed unlikely for Ko after a lackluster start to the tournament. The pre-Olympics favorite, Ko opened 69-70 and trailed Park by 7 shots.
But the New Zealander got hot on the first nine Friday, making birdies at the first, fifth and sixth holes before her ace at the eighth. She then struck her approach to 3 feet at the ninth for another birdie and an outward nine of 29 strokes.
The hole-in-one was her first anywhere, somewhat surprising given her success around the world to this point.
“I was just [recently] talking to someone and I said, I’ve actually only made a fifth of a hole-in-one because I made a hole-in-one for a double[-bogey] in a practice round, so I really can’t count it,” said Ko, meaning that she had hit two balls in a hazard before holing the third for a 5.
“This is the first one in practice rounds or tournaments included, and I almost didn’t know how to react. Because it’s the first one and the wind is blowing and I haven’t had the best of luck when it comes to hole-in-ones.
“I would have loved to, like, done a dance or jumped up and down, but in that situation, I think I was almost trying not to cry, and then I realized, hey, I’ve got 11 more holes, get out of it.”
Ko then made nine straight pars to close out her round in some of the toughest conditions. That put her in the last group for Saturday’s final round. In Round 3, Ko hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation.
“I see a girl who is way beyond her years,” said Paul McGinley, the 2014 European Ryder Cup captain who has served as a team leader for the Irish golfers the past two weeks; he watched Ko on Friday while she played with Ireland’s Leona Maguire.
“She’s very mature as a golfer and in control of her game. She understands her game, her swing, and she is very proficient at her craft. And she stays in her own mindset. Doesn’t play anybody else’s game. Doesn’t get caught up in the emotions of a good hole, bad hole. And as I say, a girl who seems to be very mature as a golfer.”
Those attributes have served Ko well in an amazing career as a teenager, one that has a chance to get even better Saturday.
“Ever since ’09, I was only 12 then, I’ve imagined myself to be able to represent New Zealand at the Olympics,” Ko said. “To be here and especially on the first day, the first hole, I almost needed to pinch myself if I was really here in Rio and really competing in the Olympics.
“To be able to stand on that podium, it’s almost more than what you would imagine. Yesterday, New Zealand had five athletes who got to stand on the podium and I said, ‘Wow, what a feeling it would be to put my contribution and stand on the podium for New Zealand, too. Just start imagining and dreaming about it.’
“But you never know with the game of golf. Things can change so quickly.”