Lydia Ko poses with the Player of the Year trophy, the Vare trophy and the CME Tour Championship trophy. Picture/AP
1. The year
Some of us can’t wait for the pointless and subjective debates that precede the Halberg Awards. Some of us want that now — and forget about limiting things to 2022.
Ko’s incredible year has elevated her above every Kiwi currently plying their trade in the world of sport.
Even before winning the CME Tour Championship on Monday, Ko was playing the most consistent golf of her glittering career. In 14 starts on the LPGA Tour since June, Ko recorded 11 top-10 finishes, capping that run in style in Florida.
By earning her 19th tour title and third of 2022, Ko finished on top of the season-long standings, was crowned the LPGA player of the year, picked up the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and collected a cool US$2 million ( NZ$3.25m).
That swag of prizes also moved Ko within two points of the 27 needed to reach the LPGA Hall of Fame. She’s 25.
2. The career
Until the last 18 months, Ko seemed destined to belong in the category of sport prodigies who peak early and never again attain those same heights.
There’s nothing wrong with slotting into that category; most of us are washed by our 30s and have rarely enjoyed life as one of the world’s best athletes.
Which Ko clearly was. At 17, she became the youngest golfer of any gender to be ranked No 1 in the world. At 18, she became the youngest woman to win a major championship. The following year, she became the youngest to win two.
Then, as quickly as she ascended, Ko slipped down to earth. After that second major was accompanied by four more victories in 2016, Ko went without another triumph until 2018. Following that win, it would be three years — 57 tournaments — before her next.
But now she’s back, and Ko fits into a different, more exclusive category: the former prodigy who lost their way but reclaimed a place on top of the world. It’s basically her and Robert Downey Jr.
3. The context
Unlike RDJ, who merely rode the wave of the movie-going public’s unseemly fixation with superhero content, Ko returning to the forefront of her profession is almost more impressive than her original performance.
It was undoubtedly a tougher road to regaining her throne, at least, because women’s golf is now in a much stronger state than during Ko’s first reign.
When she initially began challenging on the LPGA Tour, it was dominated by a handful of players. Yani Tseng of Taiwan won four majors in two years, before South Korea’s Inbee Park claimed six majors in 14 tournaments.
Now, the elite tier is much deeper and repeat champions are rare, with the last 24 majors across five years being won by 22 different women.
But don’t just take Wikipedia’s word for it, here’s what Ko said when asked last week about the state of the women’s game: “I think everybody has improved. It’s hard to even keep your card because the level of play is just so good. To win, it’s a whole new level.”
4. The person
There will always be warm regard for the quiet achiever, of which this country produces plenty, but a bit of character goes far in separating an elite athlete from their peers.
Consider the way Ruby Tui has been justifiably feted not only for her abilities but a personality as bright as the streak in her hair. And Ko’s character has long been clear, right from her first mention in the Heraldwhen the late, great David Leggat reported on a precocious seven-year-old skipping down the fairways.
Her prolonged slump was painful because it understandably sapped some of that joy. But Ko has remained one of our most insightful and amusing sportspeople.
Last week, reflecting on her decade near the front of the field, Ko said: “My mum does joke to me at times. She’s like, ‘You played so much better when you were 15′.
“I was like, ‘Thanks, Mum’.”
Earlier this year, Ko broke an outdated taboo by discussing the impact of her period, while last month she almost broke down when describing what it meant to win in South Korea.
Which is another aspect to admire about Ko, proud in both flags. It’s nice to have a standout sportsperson reflecting a common part of the Kiwi experience.
5. The competition
This is the part of the column where Lisa Carrington says, ‘Nice take, hold my five Olympic gold medals’, before jumping in her boat and winning another Olympic gold medal.
And, indeed, Ko’s bronze and silver at the Games will never compare to our most decorated Olympian. But, speaking quietly and quickly and then moving on, canoe racing is not exactly a huge focus of many nations’ Olympic programmes.
So, looking at genuinely global sports like golf, football is pretty big, and Chris Wood has reached a level unseen from a Kiwi attacking player since Wynton Rufer. Unlike Rufer, however, Wood has won nothing.
Scott Dixon has won plenty, but IndyCar is neither the premier open-wheel racing competition in the world nor the premier motor racing competition in America.
There’s a timely shout for one of a handful of Black Ferns who have now won two World Cups in XVs and Olympic gold in sevens, but singling out an individual in a team sport is always fraught.
No, the answer is Ko. She’s talked about retiring at 30, so the real question is whether she sticks around long enough for us to revisit the ‘active’ qualifier.