A Review of the Candidates – Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko, and Patty Tavatanakit
As we approach the end of the calendar year, with 2022 beckoning and a new season of golf, we take a look at the candidates for the title of player of the year in women’s golf. This past season on the LPGA could best be summed up as a “season of two halves” as two of the biggest stars in women’s professional golf took turns dominating the season.
The first half of the season was dominated by American player Nelly Korda, as she won 4-times on the LPGA, with three wins coming before the end of June. She would also add the Olympic Gold Medal in August at Tokyo for a fifth victory in 2021. South Korean Jin Young Ko dominated the second half of the season, winning 5-times to edge out Korda for the LPGA’s Player of the Year award – a points based award. Below we consider the three main contenders for the Player of the Year in women’s golf.
Nelly Korda (United States)
Nelly Korda - By the Numbers
5 - Wins including KPMG Women's PGA & 2020 Olympic Golf
9 - Top 10's (4th)
Official Money - $2,382,198 (2nd)
CME - 3,520 (2nd)
Scoring Average - 68.77 (1st)
GIR - 77.24% (5th)
Rounds under Par - 50 (2nd)
Rounds in the 60s - 39 (3rd)
It started off with a 3rd place finish at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, followed up with a win at the very next event (Gainbridge) and just like that, Nelly Korda's season was off to a fast start.
She won two more events on the LPGA in 2021 capturing her first ever major title at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship in addition to wining the Pelican Women's Championship, the penultimate event of the season. To many though, the real crown jewel in Korda's year came in August at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in winning the Gold Medal.
When we analyze Nelly Korda's game, it is easy to get focused on her driving stats given her prodigious length off the tee box. She finished the season with an average driving distance of 275 yards, good for 7th overall. But there is so much more to Korda's game than how far she hits her golf ball. Her ability to hit greens and more importantly, get the ball close to the hole is a big part of the game as the shorter distances result in more birdie putts being made. On the season, Korda was 16th in Strokes Gained (Approach to Green) averaging + 1.73 strokes gained per round. Looking at all aspects of Korda's overall play, she finished the season with a total average of + 3.40 strokes gained compared to the field.
Her high level of performance this season is best measured in Korda's scoring average, where she finished the season with 68.77 strokes per 18 holes -- good for 1st on the LPGA.
Patty Tavatanakit (Thailand)
Patty Tavatanakit - By the Numbers
1 - Win (ANA Inspiration Championship)
10 - Top 10s (3rd)
Official Money - $1,393,437 (7th)
CME - 2,328 (4th)
Scoring Average - 69.83 (11th)
GIR - 71.62% (48th)
Rounds under Par - 47 (6th)
Rounds in the 60s - 29 (13th)
The fact that Patty Tavatanakit is on this list is a testament to the impact that this rookie player made, especially in winning the season's first major at the ANA Inspiration. So dominant was her performance, that she was the sole leader all four days, going "wire to wire". She entered the final round with a 5-shot lead and it took a herculean effort from Lydia Ko's final round score of 62 to even make the event close. Still, Tavatanakit never looked troubled. Her tremendous long game (she averaged 323 yards off the tee that week), with a brilliant iron game (84% Greens in Regulation) and performance on the greens (1.70 putts per hole with zero 3-putts) proved to be the recipe for success.
In winning the ANA Inspiration, Tavatanakit had to rethink her game, her season, and what her goals would be for the remainder of the year. In short, she accomplished her primary goal of the season in capturing her first LPGA tour victory.
Tavatankit's strong play carried over to the Asian swing of events that came after the ANA Inspiration, finishing inside the Top-10 on both occasions — T3 at both the HSBC Women's event in Singapore and at the Honda LPGA Thailand event in her home country. She finished her season as the winner of the Louise Suggs trophy as the LPGA's Rookie of the Year and the Rolex Annika Major Award for her play in the majors .
Jin Young Ko (South Korea)
Jin Young Ko - By the Numbers
5 - Wins, including the CME Tour Championship
13 - Top 10s (1st)
Official Money - $3,502,161 (1st)
CME - 3,520 (1st)
Scoring Average - 68.87 (2nd)
GIR - 78.77% (2nd)
Rounds under Par - 55 (1st)
Rounds in the 60s - 42 (1st)
If the first half of the season was all Nelly, then surely the last half was all about Jin Young Ko. Grappling with swing issues early in the year, Ko was playing erratically, simply not up to the standards to which she held herself and to which tour observers had become accustomed to seeing from her. Her low point came during the stretch of events between the Meijer LPGA Classic and the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
Then in her next event, the Volunteers of America Classic, Jin Young Ko managed to pull all of the disparate pieces of the puzzle together, pulling off her first victory of the season. It was an encouraging sign for the former World No.1, and gave her some hope heading into the Tokyo Olympics where she was hoping to help her country win Gold again. But, as things often go with golf, it would take another month or so before everything came together for her. In August, she skipped the AIG Women's Open, a major tournament, to keep working on her swing issues while spending time visiting with her family in Korea.
Returning to the LPGA in September, Ko went on a rampage, winning four more events, starting with the Cambria Classic in Portland, ending with the season finale — the CME Tour Championship. Her play was scintillating; her worst finish in that stretch of 7-events was a share of 6th place in the penultimate event at the Pelican Women's Championship. Jin Young Ko bookended the Pelican event with back to back wins at the Cognizant Founders Cup and the BMW Ladies Championship prior to the Pelican. She then won the CME Event following the Pelican — a stretch of 3 wins in 4 events.
So Who Is the Women's Player of the Year?
Using a vote oriented system to determine the player of the year, in any sport, will inevitably be more of a popularity contest than a system that is determined on the basis of purely quantitative data as is the case with the LPGA's Player of the Year award. But that alone does not invalidate the process or the system itself. It allows those voting to consider qualitative factors — factors that are based more on social impact, drama, thrill of the experience, and the circumstances in which the player performed.
In considering the candidates above, it is easy to limit the discussion to Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko. That is not to say that Patty Tavatanakit is not worthy of consideration so much as it is a reflection on the incredible seasons that both Korda and Ko achieved. On the year, both players finished the season with 5 victories, with Korda having achieved wins in the Olympic Games and in winning her first major title. Rightly or wrongly, both events are of higher prominence than that afforded to the CME Tour Championship. That is an achievement that will favour Nelly Korda, though the dominance of Jin Young Ko in the last half of the season goes a long way toward mitigating that, especially in winning 3 out of 4 events to end the season.
Statistically speaking, it was extremely close with very little to separate these two players. While both players had not participated in enough events on the year to qualify for the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average, both Korda and Ko nonetheless finished in the top two spots. Nelly Korda in the top spot with an average of 68.77 strokes per round to Jin Young's 68.87.
Using the LPGA's new Strokes Gained data, courtesy of the KPMG Performance Insights program, Korda topped Ko in the overall category, with an average of +3.40 strokes gained per round compared to Ko's +2.60 strokes. While it is no surprise that Korda's "SG" - strokes gained, was superior to Ko's when it came to the tee box, in return though, Ko outperformed Korda with her approach game, realizing an average of +1.73 SG per 18 holes compared to +1.37 of Korda. That is an impressive fact given that Jin Young Ko is giving away close to 20 yards average off the tee.
As for the short game, Jin Young Ko outperformed yet again, with an average SG of +0.28 per round to Nelly Korda's +0.13. On the putting side, Korda came out ahead of Ko, by a margin of 0.42 putts per round. The only concern that I can identify with using the new Performance Insight data is that it was introduced partway through the season.
That means Nelly Korda's reduced shedule in the last half of the season resulted in her only accumulating a sample size of 23 rounds in which to develop her performance. By contrast, Jin Young Ko accumulated her strokes gained data over a more accurate sample size of 40 rounds -- almost double the rounds of Korda. Whether the Strokes Gained performance of Korda would have improved had the system been introduced at the start of season can only be speculated, but it would not be unreasonable to think that it would have been even better.
To this point, we have avoided discussion on the Rolex Women's World Rankings. At the end of 2021, Nelly Korda will finish in the World No.1 spot with Jin Young Ko in the No.2 spot and a mere margin of 0.04 average points separating the two. Korda finished the year averaging 9.75 points per event to Ko's 9.71 average points. On the year, Korda held the World No.1 spot for a total of 24 weeks in 2021 compared to Jin Young Ko's 28 weeks total.
With such a fine margin between these two players and their seasons, it would only be fitting and just for them to finish tied, jointly sharing the honours, however im probable that may be. If I was to venture who I think will win the Women's Player of the Year honours, I would have to say that I believe Nelly Korda will win. That would be based primarily on the strength of her victories in a major championship and even moreso on the strength of her Gold Medal win at the Olympics. While I personally believe that Jin Young Ko had the better season by the smallest of margins, I think that the majority will place a greater emphasis on the Gold Medal — the first ever for the American women since Golf was reintroduced as an Olympic sport.
Golf is the Real Winner
Regardless of how the voting turns out though, two things are certain — that it was one heck of a season for both players and the real winner was Golf. And that is a very good thing as it comes at a time when more and more eyes are starting to turn to the women's game and that is a great thing for the sport.