By Steve Elling
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
OCALA, Fla. _ With a notable double prize not only within reach, but practically in her grip, teen star Lydia Ko had to settle for half of the spoils Saturday _ though it represented a significant piece of golf history, nonetheless.
Though the New Zealander blew a late lead and had to settle for a share of second place at the LPGA Tour’s season opener, where she finished a shot behind Na Yeon Choi, the 17-year-old Ko became the youngest player of either gender to reach No. 1 in the world ranking.
Ko, who held a four-shot lead on the front nine of the inaugural Coates Golf Classic, double-bogeyed the 17th hole during a wild closing stretch, but still eclipsed the mark as the youngest to reach the game’s apex by nearly four years.
Ko shot 1-under 71 to finish at 15 under after holing four birdie putts of 25 feet or longer in the final round at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club, including a momentum-stealing 60-footer on the 15th to briefly reclaim the lead over Choi, who three-putted the same green from 6 feet.
Yet Choi, who topped the money list in 2010 but hadn’t won since late 2012, took the lead for good when Ko double-bogeyed the 17th after slashing it around in the pine trees down the right side of the hole. Choi closed with a 68.
For Ko, finishing in a tie for second was enough to claim the age distinction, though she had to salvage par from a bunker on the 72nd hole to secure it. Tiger Woods, previously the youngest player of either gender to reach No. 1, was 21 years, 5 months, 16 days when he reached the top in 1997. Ko made the apex in 17 years, 9 months, 7 days.
Jessica Korda (66) and Ha Na Jang (70) matched Ko at 15 under.