Ko, 17, becomes youngest to reach No. 1

By Associated PressJanuary 31, 2015, 11:00 pm

OCALA, Fla. – During a closing stretch that featured one of the more tumultuous final hours in recent LPGA tour history, teen wunderkind Lydia Ko faced a series of tough predicaments. But a query that came after the final round gave her the biggest pause of all.

After reclaiming the lead late Saturday to set herself up for a double payoff of sorts, the 17-year-old double-bogeyed the 71st hole in the inaugural Coates Golf Championship to lose by a shot to Na Yeon Choi.

However, Ko secured a piece of history that could be remembered long after the details of the tour's season opener are forgotten. The transplanted New Zealander became the youngest player of either gender to climb to world No. 1, breaking the record set by Tiger Woods by almost four years.

As the ramifications of the distinction finally took hold, the sting of defeat at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club wasn't quite so bad. The notion of celebrating, which first set her back for a moment, didn't seem so crazy after all.

''It's going to be good,'' Ko said. ''I was here to focus on the tournament itself, but I guess I got a great outcome at the end of the day, too.''

After leading by as many as four shots on the front nine, Ko trailed Choi by a shot as they played the par-3 15th. With Choi facing a 6-footer for birdie, Ko slammed in an improbable 60-footer and Choi promptly three-putted for a two-shot swing.

The teenager's lead didn't last long. Ko drove into a fairway bunker, then fanned a hybrid shot into a stand of pine trees down the right side of the 17th hole, scrambling to make a double bogey.


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As the steadier Choi finished with a 4-under 68 and 16-under total, Ko had to salvage a par on the 18th to finish in a three-way tie at 15 under, but it was good enough to secure a piece of the record book.

Woods, previously the youngest golfer to reach No. 1, was 21 years, 5 months, 16 days when he reached the top in 1997. Ko reached the mark 3 years, 8 months, 14 days earlier. The men's rankings date to 1986 and the women's list is nine years old.

''It's a nice consolation, if you want to call it that,'' said Ko's swing coach, David Leadbetter.

Ko finished with a 71 to match Jessica Korda (66) and Ha Na Jang (70) at 15 under.

Ko, whose pulse rate seems to be frozen at about 75 beats per minute whether she's making an eagle or double bogey, hardly seemed derailed by the 71st-hole meltdown. Her indefatigable nature is her biggest asset, Leadbetter said.

''We sent her to anger management school to learn how to get angry,'' Leadbetter laughed.

Choi, on the other hand, was clearly caught up in the emotion of her first victory since late 2012. The 27-year-old topped the LPGA money list in 2010 and won the 2012 U.S. Women's Open, but had fallen out of the world top 15.

''I think I was so nervous out there,'' said Choi, who recorded her eighth LPGA victory and was fighting back tears. ''I was waiting so long for this moment.''

Choi, one of the game's elite players before the two-year victory drought set in, admitted that the pressure to succeed wore her down to the point that she stopped reading Korean sports websites and considered downgrading her cellphone plan so she could not download stories about her play.

''I think I had a lot of stress from the result,'' Choi said. ''Even if I was top 10 or top five, not many people said you did a good job if you finish as runner up. They say you are a loser and that hurts me a lot.''

As for Ko, her ascent seemed ordained when she won her first LPGA tour title as an amateur at age 15, the youngest in tour history.

''I can't say I'm surprised,'' American star Stacy Lewis said of the new No. 1. ''It was just a matter of time.''

Ko, a native of South Korea who moved to New Zealand as a youngster, unseated Inbee Park in the top spot.

''She's probably the straightest player out here,'' said Park, who tie for 17th. ''The golf gets easier if you hit the ball straight and you can roll the ball in.''

Ko hit a few crooked shots down the stretch, which ultimately cost her the first-place trophy, but once the magnitude of the moment took hold, she was all smiles.

''There was obviously a loss,'' Ko said. ''But there was a huge positive, too. That's pretty awesome.''

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.