NAPLES, Fla. — At every level, Lilia Vu has had one goal. Win Player of the Year.
In 2018, Vu won the Women’s Golf Coaches Association Player of the Year. In 2021, she won the Epson Tour Player of the Year.
And now, on Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club, a fourth-place finish at the CME Group Tour Championship locked up the LPGA Tour’s Player of the Year for Vu.
“I think [it is the] highest award for me to ever achieve,” Vu said Sunday.
That journey began when the Southern California native’s maternal grandfather, Dinh Du, got his family out of war-torn Vietnam by building a boat to escape. Even with his passing in early 2020, Du’s presence is constantly around Vu, whose final advice to her was to play her best, which repeatedly echoes at the forefront of her memory with her tributes to him.
The No. 1 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings painted her fingernails with Koi fish in honor of the 50 koi he had in his backyard pond. Vu, 26, prefers working quietly in the background and not boisterously sharing her goals, taking up her grandfather’s mantle of leaving his family for months to finish the boat without getting caught.
“This whole entire season I’ve played for my grandpa,” Vu said. “Once I lost him at the beginning of COVID, I think I just always keep him in the back of my mind and just trust myself and not give up.”
She wrote down her goals at the start of the year, which was to win an LPGA event. Vu accomplished that at the Honda LPGA Thailand in February, her first start of the year, and then expanded her goal to win a major. Two months later, she accomplished that at the Chevron Championship in April.
After her first major title, Vu asked her dad if they could get a pet. He said yes if she won another major that year. It seemed unlikely after missing four cuts in a 2 ½-month span from late April to early July, which included the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. Despite the poor run of play, Vu put her game back together and went on to win the AIG Women’s Open at Walton Heath in August.
Vu now owns a cat she named Walton.
Then, when Celine Boutier passed Vu in the Player of the Year race with her victory at the Maybank Championship at the end of October, Vu answered back with a win at the Annika driven by Gainbridge last week for a commanding lead in the points-based Player of the Year race.
A four-victory season was hard to envision when the now World No. 1 was 1,007th in the world rankings after her 2019 rookie year, staring down a demotion to the Epson.
Vu recognized what needed to change after crying on the 18th green at last year’s CME from a frustrating 2022 campaign. That entire year, Vu lost the fun of the game, treating each tournament in a life-or-death fashion. Her solution? In part, thinking of her grandfather.
“When I get down on myself I kind of think, okay, grandpa didn’t do all this for you to get upset over one shot,” Vu explained.
Now, Vu’s season puts her up among some of the LPGA’s all-time greats. Vu became the first player to win the Epson (2021) and LPGA (2023) Player of the Year awards since Lorena Ochoa won the Futures Tour in 2002 and LPGA in 2006. Vu is the first American since Stacy Lewis (2014) to earn the honor and first American to win two majors in a season since Juli Inkster in 1999. Her $3,502,303 earnings this year is the third highest in a single season in LPGA history. The player-of-the-year honors earns Vu her seventh LPGA Hall of Fame point of the season, leaving her 20 away from reaching the tour’s challenging hall.
What is most important to Vu are not the accolades or the acknowledgment of how far she has come from the lowly end of her 2019 rookie season. What moved Vu to tears at the end of her press conference was thinking of what her grandfather would say about her accomplishments.
“I think he would be really proud,” Vu said. “I don’t know what he would say to me. I just keep thinking about the last thing he said to me, which is try your best.
“I think about that every day and I try to do that every day.”
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com