CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) — Lydia Ko won the Kia Classic on Sunday at Aviara, reaffirming her position as the top player in the world heading into the first major championship of the season.
Ko birdied the final three holes for her third straight 5-under 67 and a four-stroke victory over second-ranked Inbee Park.
“I just kind of peeked at the leaderboard and saw Inbee was making a lot of birdies – Inbee doing her Inbee things,” Ko said. “I knew that I needed to focus up until the last moment and fortunately I made some birdies down the stretch.”
A week after finishing second in Phoenix in the Founders Cup, the 18-year-old New Zealander headed to Rancho Mirage for the ANA Inspiration with her first LPGA Tour victory of the year and 11th overall. She also won the Ladies European Tour’s New Zealand Women’s Open in February.
“All the work we’ve put in as a team kind of paid off,” Ko said. “A really happy moment, but I have to focus for next week. I’m really excited to go back to ANA.”
She tied for 51st last year at ANA
“I didn’t strike the ball very well last year there,” Ko said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to hit a few more fairways and give myself a good chance. Obviously, it helps to have played well here going into the first major of the year.”
Ko finished at 19-under 269.
Park closed with a 67. The 2013 winner at Rancho Mirage, the South Korean player appears to be over the back problem that forced her to withdraw from the first event of the season.
“We have a really important tournament coming up next week, so I really needed to push myself a little faster to get ready,” Park said. “This is a great finish for me and it’s going to be a good confidence week for me.”
She tied for 30th in Thailand and Singapore in her first events back and missed the cut in Phoenix.
“I have been struggling with ball-striking to putting and everything until probably last week,” Park said. “This week, everything started clicking together. Started to hit the ball a lot straighter and started to get a lot of confidence and, obviously, dropping a few putts gave me a lot of confidence.”
Playing two groups ahead of Ko, Park pulled within two shots with birdies on the par-4 16th and par-5 17th. Ko pushed the lead back to two with a birdie on the short par-4 16th, holing a 10-foot putt after driving the green and racing her first putt past the hole.
Ko made an 8-foot birdie putt on 17, and finished with a 15-footer on 18.
She bogeyed the par-5 10th after double-hitting a putt from the fringe. The ball popped out of a pitch mark and caught her club in the follow-through, costing her a one-stroke penalty.
“I don’t think I’ve ever double-hit it, especially with a putter before,” Ko said. “That was interesting. Fortunately, I was able to make the second putt. I think that was kind of the turning point.”
Japan’s Ai Miyazato was third at 12 under after a 66. The nine-time LPGA Tour winner had her first top-10 finish since 2013.
“I’ve been struggling with my putting since a couple years ago,” Miyazato said. “That’s why my game wasn’t really there. But I had really good patience and I know I can get through it. Right now, I’m in the process, but just the difference is it’s just I’m having fun more with my game.”
South Koreans Sung Hyun Park and Jenny Shin each shot 72 to tie for fourth at 11 under. Sung Hyun Park received a sponsor exemption.
Brittany Lang closed with a bogey on 17 and a double bogey on 18 – hitting into the water twice – for a 74 that dropped her into a tie for 10th at 9 under.