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Lydia Ko gets a new year off to the right start by winning LPGA Tour opener

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — It took only four rounds for Lydia Ko to put a dismal 2023 LPGA Tour season completely behind her.

Ko rediscovered her winning touch Sunday in the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, closing with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot victory over Alexa Pano at Lake Nona.

Ko, who finished at 14-under 274, won for the 20th time on the LPGA Tour. The 26-year-old from New Zealand became the seventh woman to win 20 LPGA titles before turning 27.

“The win is obviously great,” Ko said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be back in the winner’s circle, and to be back to the first tournament of the season, it’s pretty cool and so much faster than I could have ever anticipated.”

Ko was winless in 20 LPGA starts a year ago, and she now can resume her quest for entry into the exclusive LPGA Hall of Fame. Ko needs 27 points to get there, and the triumph Sunday put her just one point away. Each regular LPGA win is worth one point.

She could get there as early as this coming week, at the LPGA Drive On Championship, played just two hours from her home, in Bradenton.

Sunday’s final margin was two shots, but Ko remained in control throughout the final round, played amid unseasonably cool temperatures that dipped into the 40s. Ko, bogey-free in her second and third rounds, birdied four of her first 15 holes Sunday against a single bogey to leave her pursuers battling for second most of the day.

She stretched her lead to five shots early on the final nine. The only anxious moment arrived at the reachable par-5 15th, where Ko tugged her second shot left, toward a hazard. The ball finished in some gnarly rough short of the water and Ko, who displayed a top-notch short game all week, promptly pitched her third shot to 3 feet to set up the fourth birdie of her round.

Ko won the unofficial mixed-team Grant Thornton Invitational alongside Australian Jason Day late in 2023, which boosted her confidence. She said winning individually at Lake Nona provides a relief after enduring such a rough year in 2023.

What did she learn in a difficult season? “I cry a lot,” Ko said.

On Sunday, there were no tears. Winning against a limited field of champions from the last two seasons seemed as if it was expected. Business as usual.

“I’m playing against the best female golfers week-in and week-out,” she said, “and you know that your ‘B’ game is not going to cut it. People think golf is easy. It’s not.”

With a cold, steady breeze blowing and the ball not flying as far it had been earlier in the week, scoring in the final round was difficult. Only three players among the 34 LPGA finishers (Jody Ewart-Shadoff withdrew Sunday) managed rounds below 70. The low round was 68, and Ko was fine making pars.

She would bogey the final hole (where she hit a rare poor chip), but still won with ease.

Pano, who began the day two shots behind, summoned a late charge to make things interesting, with birdies at three of the final five holes as she matched Ko’s round of 70. Pano is only 19 years old, and her finish marked her second career top 10, adding to a victory in Northern Ireland late last year.

Canada’s Brooke Henderson, the tournament’s defending champion, made a strong Sunday run (68) with new irons in the bag to finish solo third. Cheyenne Knight (69), Ally Ewing (72) and Japan’s Ayaka Furue (71) tied for fourth at 8 under.

Ko’s 20 victories put her one behind Inbee Park (maternity leave) among active players. She joins Laura Davies and Cristie Kerr on the career list.

Ko, who is a Lake Nona resident, didn’t play well, didn’t score well, and left the golf course in tears on more than one occasion a year ago. Juli Inkster at one point pulled Ko aside and told her just to focus on trying to finish off under-par rounds. Sunday marked the first time all week Ko was not in the 60s, and she bettered par in all four rounds.

DIVOTS: New York Mets infielder Jeff McNeil won the tournament’s Celebrity Division, which utilized a Modified Stableford points format. He finished with 138 points, two better than Annika Sorenstam, the LPGA Hall of Famer who came up shy once more on her home course. McNeil, who grew up playing high school golf, not baseball, carries the nickname of “Flying Squirrel,” and he won on National Squirrel Appreciation Day. ... Hilton Grand Vacations has extended its sponsorship of the Tournament of Champions for five more years.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf