Being No. 1 a great honor with immense pressure

By Jason SobelMarch 18, 2013, 4:00 pm

Stacy Lewis was only minutes removed from a final-round 64 that gave her a three-stroke victory at the RR Donnelly LPGA Founders Cup on Sunday, thrusting her into the spotlight as the game’s newest No. 1-ranked player, when she was asked about the notable burden of reaching that level.

Without hesitation, she smiled. Relishing the question and the upcoming opportunity to prove herself worthy, Lewis confidently claimed, “I love having that pressure.”

Time will tell whether she still loves it in the weeks, months and possibly even years to come. You can make a lot of enemies and ultimately appear foolish doubting a player who spent a hefty part of her childhood in a back brace due to scoliosis, but there’s no denying the disconcerting trend among top-ranked players recently.

It sounds like a flummoxing riddle: What does every professional golfer wish they had until they actually have it? The answer, though, is nothing to laugh at. It’s the world’s No.-1 ranking.

Ask any elite player about long-term goals and it won’t be long before they utter some semblance of the following: “To be the best in the world.” And yet, those who talk the talk find it difficult to walk the walk. After literally walking off the golf course three weeks ago at the Honda Classic, Rory McIlroy spoke about the pressures of playing with that bull’s-eye on his back.

“It's not like this is a new position,” he contended, sounding more like he was trying to convince himself  than anyone else. “I was sitting here this time last year, you know, just went to No. 1 in the world, so I guess I've had a year to get adjusted to it and get used to it. So it shouldn't be a problem.

“[But] you want to sort of prove that you are No. 1 and that's not the right way to go about things. You shouldn't have to try and prove that. You should just go out and play your game and if you play well enough, the rankings and the results will speak for themselves.”

Those words alone could prompt a special kinship between McIlroy and Yani Tseng, who held the top spot in the women’s game for more than two full years before being bounced by Lewis this week.

“Before I was No. 1, and when I became No. 1, I would tell myself to smile, and I would smile,” Tseng said prior to officially losing her position. “Last year, it was so hard. I would tell myself to smile, and it looked like a fake smile, like it wasn’t really coming from inside.”

Call me cynical, but I have a tough time believing that placing a straight number instead of a crooked one in front of someone’s name, based solely on a statistical formula, can result in that much added pressure. Then again, there are only a handful of golfers who understand this quandary. Since the men’s ranking was implemented in 1986, only 16 players have held the No. 1 position; meanwhile, Lewis is just the seventh in the women’s game since 2006.

According to most, it’s the confluence of external pressure leading to internal pressure which accounts for the majority of tumultuous supremacies.

“I think everyone's looking up to the guy at No. 1,” Luke Donald, who held that position for 56 weeks, said recently. “They expect results. I expect results out of myself, too. You just feel like you need to perform and I think it's just a little added pressure that you put on yourself.”

Perhaps it’s only fitting that in this time, when being the lead dog apparently comes with additional strain, the one player who handled it best and for the longest period may be on the verge of regaining such status.

With a successful title defense at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods will become No. 1 in the world for the 624th week of his career – and the first time since Oct. 30, 2010. In light of McIlroy’s assertion that the top spot comes with added pressure, Woods has been asked about how it affected him as a young player.

See if you can spot the difference between what he maintains and the words of McIlroy, Donald and Tseng.

“It's just one of those things where for me, it happened at 21 years old and I was pretty young, just fresh out of college the year before,” he intoned. “And it happened very quickly for me. I won some tournaments, won the Masters, had a pretty good season in'97. For me, it wasn't necessarily the pressure of being No. 1.  It was more the scheduling. I had never played that much golf, playing around the world. … It (took) me until '99 that I made an adjustment on scheduling and finally got it right and had some pretty good years after that.”

So while most young No. 1 players lament the pressure, Woods said it most affected his … schedule. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for those who bemoan the struggles of dealing with a starring role in the spotlight.

Somewhere in here lies a lesson for the newly crowned Lewis. While other recent No. 1 players may pass along the warning, “Careful what you wish for,” the advice from Woods may come closer to, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Not that becoming No. 1 is any small feat, but those who treat the ranking as less of a burden ultimately seem the least burdened by it over the long haul. It’s a delicate paradox, one which has left a number of top players feeling what Tseng called “a great release” after finally relinquishing the honor.

For now, after holding the No. 1 spot for mere minutes, Lewis insisted, “I love having that pressure.” Others have made similar brash statements, only to find later that the love doesn’t continue as the pressure grows. Now it’s her turn.

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."