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Ko builds on her rise back and opens with 63 at Boca Rio

Lydia Ko continued take steps toward the top of women's golf again on Thursday with birdies on half of her holes for a 9-under 63 and a two-shot lead over Danielle Kang in the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio.

Ko has been winning on the LPGA Tour for so long — she won her first title as a 15-year-old — that it’s easy to forget she is only 24.

Ko, a 16-time winner on tour, has seen it all, from winning two majors and becoming No. 1 in the world, to watching her ball-striking, her results and her confidence plummet.

Danielle Kang tees off on the 16th hole during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP PhotoPhelan M. Ebenhack)

She ended a nearly three-year drought by winning in Hawaii last year. She is back to No. 3 in the world.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to maintain the ‘goods’ from today the rest of the week,” Ko said.

Kang, coming off a season-opening victory last week at Lake Nona, had eight birdies (one of them after hitting the flagstick with her tee shot on the par-3 17th) for a 65.

Aditi Ashok (66) was alone in third, followed by a group of players at 5-under 67 that included U.S. Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso. A short birdie lip-out at the par-5 eighth hole, her second-to-last hole of the day, kept top-ranked Nelly Korda from joining that group. She got up-and-down for par on her final hole to finish at 68.

Just over half the 120-player field broke par on a warm day with not much wind, ideal conditions for scoring.

A missed putt from inside 5 feet on her last hole kept Ko from tying the tournament scoring record established in 2020 by Madelene Sagstrom, who won the event.

Ko, who tied for 10th in her season debut last week at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, didn't stay upset for long about that short miss. There were far too many positives in her round to dwell on a single stroke.

Ko, who teed off in the afternoon after Kang had posted 65, was solid all day, never getting into much trouble from tee to green, by her count making only one bad swing. She felt very rusty entering last week’s event at Lake Nona, her home course. But the overall state of her game has been a pleasant surprise.

She ran off two three-birdie bursts to distance herself from long hitters Korda and Lexi Thompson (70), who were playing alongside.

Kang finished third at Boca Rio when it hosted the Gainbridge two years ago. Her memories of the week?

“I don’t remember, to be honest,” Kang said. “All I remember is the greens being really fast ... I can’t remember the shots that I hit.”

Kang won for the first time since the summer of 2020 last week at the Tournament of Champions, performing nicely on the weekend (69-68) in cooler temperatures that once might have thrown her off her game.

Playing in the cold is something Kang worked on in the offseason, playing and practicing in chilly, windy conditions at home in Las Vegas. It is expected to cool into the 50s in Boca this weekend; last week, on a more demanding golf course, Kang was the lone golfer in the 29-player LPGA field to break 70 both weekend days.

She had another tidy round Thursday, and even her one tough break turned out in her favor. Kang began the new year with an ace in a casual round. Her 9-iron on the 17th never left the flag, clanged of the bottom of the pin and bounded 15 feet away. No matter. She holed the birdie putt.

This may be difficult to believe: Kang won and collected $225,000 on Sunday, and it might not have been her best day of the week.

On Tuesday morning, Kang played golf with hockey great Wayne Gretzky at the ultra-private The Grove XXIII in nearby Hobe Sound. (She also joined Wayne and Janet Gretzky, who have Southern California ties with her, for the Great One's birthday dinner on Wednesday.)

Kang was seated in the clubhouse after her round on Tuesday when a deep voice beckoned her: “Hey DK. Nice win!” It was the course proprietor, Michael Jordan.

“I’m just staring at him,” Kang said. “This is Michael Jordan. So cool.”

Yes, 2022 is off to a nice start.

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