Naomi Ko knew her opponent, Megan Khang, was riding a crest of momentum as she headed into the Round of 32 at the 67th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. But instead of focusing on Khang’s medalist honors in the stroke-play portion of the championship two days earlier, the Canadian saw today as an opportunity to test her game against the No. 17 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. Eighteen holes later, Ko had upended the No. 1 seed with a 1-up victory.
“I putted well and my ball striking was really good,” said Ko, 17, of Victoria, British Columbia. “Everything came together today, but it was close because Megan was making birdies out there, too. It was a good match.”
The match teetered back and forth on the first nine and was all square through nine holes.
Ko won the next two to take a 2-up lead on No. 11, but Khang carded a birdie on 12 to halve the deficit. Ko again went 2 up with a birdie on No. 14, but Khang answered with a five-foot birdie on the 16th to again trail by 1 down. Both players recorded pars on their last two holes, giving Ko the 1-up victory.
“Naomi was awesome, especially on the putting surface,” said Khang, 17, of Rockland, Mass. “She made every birdie putt whenever she was on the green inside 20 feet. She’s a good player and she’s played well this week.”
A member of the six-woman Canadian National Development Team, Ko said she prepared and trained all winter for the 2015 season. Earlier this year, she traveled with the Canadian Team to Australia for competitions there.
“I’ve worked hard and it’s paying off,” said Ko. “I really thought I had a good chance to win today. I didn’t think about the results. I just played one shot at a time and today it worked.”
But today’s effort wasn’t without some challenges. Ko says she lost focus on the outward nine after making a double-bogey 6 on the second hole that included a drive into trees and an approach shot into a water hazard.
“As I went to the back nine, I told myself, ‘New game,’” she said. “That’s where I kind of caught up.”
Born in Incheon, in the Republic of Korea, Ko began playing golf at age 10, but she also played soccer until 11. At that point, she decided to quit soccer and focus on golf in an effort to earn a college scholarship in the United States.
That first part of her golf goal will come true this fall when she enrolls as a freshman
at North Carolina State University, following the pipeline of fellow Canadians Augusta James, Brittany Marchand, Vivian Tsui, Amanda Baker and Brooke Baker as a member of the Wolfpack women’s golf team.
Her career highlights include winning her first American Junior Golf Association tournament at the 2012 Aspen Junior Girls Classic in Aspen, Colo., and competing in the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 2012 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
This week, however, marks the first time she has advanced into match play. And now, a new highlight will be upsetting the medalist at this year’s Girls’ Junior.
But Ko knows today’s win is only one step in her new status as one of Canada’s emerging top women amateurs. Prior to this week, she had never advanced as far as the Round of 16, where she beat Alyaa Abdulghany of Newport Beach, Calif., by a 2-and-1 margin.
When Ko leaves Oklahoma to compete in next week’s Canadian Women’s Amateur, as well as in the Canadian Junior Amateur the following week, she will take with her a new knowledge that she can play alongside the best.
“I definitely gained some confidence from this match [in the Round of 32],” she said. “And I also think Canadian women’s golf is stepping up. You have to work hard and you have to maintain it, but things are finally coming together.”