ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Outside of a great honeymoon to start 2023, Lydia Ko had a year she’d pretty much like to forget. She struggled mightily on the golf course after winning three times the previous season, and on several occasions left the 18th green at a tournament in tears.
Ko, a 19-time LPGA Tour winner, two-time major champion and still only 26, will have a great chance to bounce back this weekend at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions on the Lake Nona course she now calls home.
Ko played bogey-free for a 5-under 67 as temperatures began to cool in the LPGA’s season opener, and she heads into the weekend alongside Japan’s Ayaka Furue (71) in a share of the 36-hole lead.
They were at 8-under 136. Scotland’s Gemma Dryburgh (68) and Mexico’s Gaby Lopez, a former TOC champion who shot 71, are two shots back. Defending champion Brooke Henderson and Alexa Pano — at 19, the youngest player in this week’s field — will begin the weekend three shots out of the lead. Both shot 70 on Friday.
Ko tasted success elsewhere in 2023, winning an event on the Ladies European Tour (the Saudi Ladies International) and an unofficial mixed-team tournament alongside the PGA Tour’s Jason Day late in the year. That gave her the confidence she was searching for.
Her results on the LPGA were a mess. After a tie for sixth to begin her season in Thailand last February, Ko teed it up in 19 other LPGA events, with only one other top-10 finish. She failed to qualify for the year-ending CME Group Tour Championship, which was something of a shock to her system.
Two days into the TOC — which features LPGA winners from the past two years — Ko’s game appears strong, and very steady. She ripped a 3-wood into the par-5 ninth hole to set up an eagle from 9 feet and finished strongly with a 4-hybrid to 15 feet to run in one last birdie at the 18th hole. She missed only one green on a challenging day.
Ko and her fellow LPGA pros will be tested this weekend with a cold front expected to drop temperatures into the low 40s Fahrenheit. On Friday, she and a few other late finishers, including Furue, dealt with rain at the end of the round.
“It wasn’t easy, especially the wind picking up after nine holes,” Ko said. “So that’s going to be the mindset for the next couple days ... but definitely glad that I’m done and it’s still raining outside.”
One season after leading the LPGA in total strokes gained on the field, Ko slipped to 56th last season. Ko is close enough to be thinking about the World Golf Hall of Fame — she is two points away, with victories counting as one point and majors two — and she enters a new season refreshed, with a new coach (Si Woo Lee) and boosted confidence.
Furue, a 23-year-old who is a strong putter and owns one LPGA victory at the 2022 Scottish Open, did not play as well as she did a day earlier, when she opened with a tournament-record 65. But she managed to hang in there in more difficult conditions. Furue did not make her first birdie until the 12th hole, and one more birdie on the shortened par-5 15th carried her to an under-par round.
The LPGA members play 72 holes of stroke play in their season opener, doing so alongside a field of 50 athletes and celebrities who compete in a separate division using a Modified Stableford points system.
Annika Sorenstam, a 72-time winner on the LPGA and a Lake Nona resident, is tied with former NHL player Jeremy Roenick for first among the celebrities, with 75 points. Former MLB pitcher Derek Lowe, who clipped Sorenstam in a playoff two years ago, had one of his best rounds, shooting the equivalent of 70 on Friday. He trails Sorenstam and Roenick by four points.
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