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Lydia Ko holds off Danielle Kang to win at Boca Rio on LPGA

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA (AP) – A terrific up-and-down for a scrambling par from a short-side bunker on the 72nd hole lifted Lydia Ko (AP; pic below) to a one-shot victory over Danielle Kang on Sunday at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio.

Kang, trying to become only the second player since 1966 to open a season with back-to-back LPGA Tour victories, shot a 4-under 68, one shot better than Ko, but fell one short.

Ko finished at 14-under 274, earning her 17th LPGA victory. Yuka Saso (67), the United States (US) Women’s Open champion, was third, two shots behind. Charley Hull (68) and Celine Boutier (69) tied for fourth.

Kang had a 20-foot downhill putt for birdie to force a playoff on the final hole, and even got a read from fellow competitor Celine Boutier, but Kang’s slick putt started left and never drifted back. Ko then tapped in for the win.

Ko won for only the third time since 2016. The 24-year-old from New Zealand started winning LPGA events at the age of 15, and early on, made winning appear easy. (“Trust me,” she said on Sunday, “it was never easy”.)

At times she said she tried to play perfect golf, and make perfect swings, but has come to the realisation that perfect golf doesn’t exist on video games.

“Sometimes, like today,” Ko said, “I’m going to hit some not-so-pretty ones.”

Danielle Kang of the US. PHOTOS: AP

The difference-maker on Sunday came at the 15th hole. Ko and Kang were tied at 12 under, and Kang hit the better approach into the par-4.

That’s when Ko, who put a new putter in the bag this week, stroked a downhill, 25-foot right-to-left curler that tumbled in on its last roll. Kang had 12 feet and missed. Ko led at 13 under. Both players traded birdies at the par-5 16th, then closed with pars.

The past few years Ko, the former world number one, has had to reconstruct her confidence and try to simplify her game. She fell out of the top 50 in the rankings. It’s more work these days to win, but still quite rewarding, nonetheless.

Her coach, Sean Foley, texted Ko on Sunday morning with this: “Every day, every shot, you have a chance and a choice.” The intention of the message: Go do something incredible.

Ko faced not one, but two tall challenges on the closing hole. Her drive found a left-side fairway bunker, leaving 171 yards in on the 415-yard par-4.

She made great contact with a 5-iron, but her ball caught the edge of a greenside bunker.

Her bunker shot from 15 yards pitched softly and rolled out to a foot below the hole. What were Ko’s thoughts as the final hole unfolded?

“Please … I don’t want to play this hole again,” she said, smiling. Ko picked up a winner’s cheque for USD300,000.

Added her caddie, Derek Kistler, “I’m not sure if she was nervous or not on those bunker shots, but I wasn’t. That final shot to a foot? Standard operating procedure for her. She’s amazing.”

Ko and Kang, her longtime friend – Kang refers to Ko as her “little sister” – traded pars for much of the cool, sunny South Florida afternoon, which left a handful of other players sticking around with a chance.

Canada’s Brooke Henderson went out in 5-under 31 and tacked on a birdie at the 10th to get to 10 under par. Japan’s Saso turned in 3-under 33, getting to double-digits under par.

Likewise, England’s Hull made three early birdies to get to minus 10 and make her presence known.

But all three would cool. Saso birdied the ninth and didn’t make another until the 17th. Hull played her first six holes of her final nine in one over. Henderson, six under at one point on the day, struggled with the putter, and came in 37.